x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ankara struggles to contain crisis

Summit is hastily convened to ease tensions after arrest of 49 military officers accused of 2003 plan to topple government.

Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, welcomes the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, centre, and the chief of staff, Gen Ilker Basbug, at the Presidential Palace in Ankara yesterday. Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Reuters / Presidential Palace Press Office
Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, welcomes the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, centre, and the chief of staff, Gen Ilker Basbug, at the Presidential Palace in Ankara yesterday. Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Reuters / Presidential Palace Press Office

ISTANBUL // Turkey's leaders were struggling yesterday to contain a crisis triggered by the unprecedented arrest of almost 50 current and former officers of the armed forces accused of taking part in plans to topple the government. Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, met with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, and Gen Ilker Basbug, the chief of general staff, in the presidential palace in Ankara in a hastily convened summit designed to ease tensions caused by the arrests. Television pictures showed the three men shaking hands and sitting down at a round table at the start of their meeting.

When the meeting ended three hours later, Mr Gul's office issued a statement that sought to dispel fears of a possible military coup. At the same time, the statement appeared to try to reassure the armed forces, which regard the latest arrests as an unjustified attack. "Citizens can rest assured that current problems will be solved in the framework of our laws and the constitution," the statement said. "In this period, everyone should act with responsibility so that institutions are not undermined."

As political and military leaders wrapped up their meeting, prosecutors in Istanbul were questioning high-ranking former officers. The most prominent among them were Ibrahim Firtina, the former commander of Turkey's air force, Orden Ornek, the former navy commander, and Ergin Saygun, a former deputy chief of general staff. It was not immediately clear if the three ex-generals would be charged. Of the 49 officers taken in by the police in a raid on Monday, 20 were charged by a court in Istanbul by yesterday.

They are accused of involvement in a war game codenamed "Sledgehammer" in 2003 that prosecutors say involved plans for bomb attacks on mosques and other steps to stir up the public in an effort to set the stage for a military coup to bring down the Erdogan government. The accusations are the latest in a series of alleged coup plots said to have been hatched within military ranks. Officers are also accused of being members of Ergenekon, a right-wing group also charged with hatching a plan to bring down Mr Erdogan.

Opposition politicians and the military itself say the accusations are part of a smear campaign aimed at undermining the public's respect for the army. Some critics accuse the religiously conservative government of Mr Erdogan of being behind the investigations against the strictly secular military. In a meeting after the arrest, the military leadership warned of a "serious situation", but refrained from further comments. Turkey's generals have toppled four governments in the past 50 years and publicly threatened to stage a coup against Mr Erdogan only three years ago. But the latest scandals have severely weakened the military's image of a disciplined and professional institution that is watching over the republic. The weight of evidence uncovered in the course of the Ergenekon investigation has led even observers critical of the government to believe that some soldiers were up to something sinister. Talking about the alleged plots in a television show this week, Sedat Ergin, a columnist for the Milliyet newspaper, referred to the discovery of 10kg of plastic explosives in the house of one officer linked to Ergenekon. "Nobody can tell me he collected the stuff with good intent," Ergin said. The big question in Ankara is how the military will react to all this. A new coup as a reaction to the latest arrests is unlikely. Gen Basbug said recently that the days of coups were over. There are other signs that Gen Basbug is determined to avoid a further escalation. He ordered an internal inquiry after news reports earlier this week revealed that a navy facility had used the phrase "low-life prime minister" as a watchword for its guards. A navy officer was arrested by military authorities as a consequence of that inquiry, media reports said yesterday. Cemil Cicek, a vice premier who met Gen Basbug a day after the latest arrest, said the military were chagrined by news of the police action, but that rumours about a coup or a summary resignation of the general staff were baseless. "Their colleagues have been taken in under severe charges," Mr Cicek was quoted as saying in yesterday's Hurriyet newspaper, referring to the officers currently under arrest in Istanbul. "That is a shock for anyone." He said he told the military that "we are on the same team", Mr Cicek added. "We will get through this crisis." But Mr Cicek rejected Gen Basbug's demand that the government put out a statement criticising the latest arrests, news reports said. As a result of the current crisis, the days when Turkish generals were regarded as the highest authority on important issues of the state may be over for good. Turkey's bid to join the European Union calls for more civilian oversight over the armed forces, and the country's public and media are more willing today to question the military's traditional role than they were 10 years ago. Nazli Ilicak, a columnist for the Sabah daily and a former parliamentary deputy known as a critic of the military, sees the latest arrests as a sign of a new emancipation of civilian institutions in Turkey. "The government as well as the judiciary make use of their powers," she wrote yesterday. "The era of 'As you say, commander' has come to an end." There also may be a rift within the military itself. Taraf, a newspaper that broke many of the stories about alleged coup plans in recent years, including the "Sledgehammer" case, says it has received material from military officers opposed to the plots. tseibert@thenational.ae