x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Turkey's army chief denounces coup plot talk as smear campaign

After weeks of speculation about a suspected new coup plot by the armed forces against the government, the country's top general yesterday went on the counter-offensive.

ISTANBUL // After weeks of speculation about a suspected new coup plot by Turkey's armed forces against the government, the country's top general yesterday went on the counter-offensive, accusing critics of waging a smear campaign and stressed that no anti-democratic activities would be tolerated in military ranks on his watch. "We think that this piece of paper has been prepared by someone who wants to undermine the Turkish Armed Forces and blacken their image," Gen Ilker Basbug told reporters in Ankara. "As the chief of general staff, I say: take your hands off the military."

The coup allegations were made public by the newspaper Taraf, which is known for its critical reporting about the army, two weeks ago. Taraf said a colonel working in the general staff in Ankara had signed a four-page document this April that listed suggestions to destabilise the religiously conservative government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, who is seen as an Islamist by many army officers.

Despite a private meeting between Gen Basbug and Mr Erdogan, aimed at calming the waters, the allegations have raised tensions between the army and the government. Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has brought criminal charges in an effort to find out if the alleged plan is genuine and who wrote it. Gen Basbug said yesterday the military would talk about the issue in next week's meeting of the National Security Council, an advisory body that includes the president, the leaders of the government and the country's top generals.

Some media have suggested that the document may have been fabricated by opponents of the army in an effort to undermine public confidence in the armed forces. But given Turkey's histories of coups and army interventions, with four governments removed by military pressure since 1960, and a coup threat by the military against Mr Erdogan only two years ago, the fresh allegations have reignited a debate about the political role of the army.

Even media and commentators known for their closeness to the military called the alleged plot unacceptable. Although both military and civilian investigators have so far failed to find hard evidence that the alleged coup plan was genuine and although the colonel named by Taraf denied having written such a paper, many commentators said it could not be ruled out that such plans existed within the ranks of the military.

"If you think it is legitimate that the military is active in politics, and if you accept that, then it is unavoidable that plans for coups are being drawn up," Oral Calislar, a columnist for the Radikal newspaper, wrote recently. Scepticism towards the armed forces, coupled with a waning influence of the military resulting from political reforms designed to prepare Turkey for membership in the European Union, is significant for a country where top generals used to be beyond criticism. Only a few days ago, the main opposition party said it wants to change the constitution in order to put former coup leaders on trial. Kenan Evren, the leader of the coup of 1980 who later went on to become president, said he would commit suicide if such a constitutional amendment would be ratified in a referendum.

Reacting to the criticism levelled against the military, Gen Basbug yesterday repeated earlier statements that he would not accept any anti-democratic leanings in the armed forces. "No one carrying thoughts outside democracy and justice will be tolerated in the Turkish Armed Forces," he said. "If such a situation were to arise, the Turkish Armed Forces, the general staff would take the necessary steps immediately."

He called on the civilian prosecutor in Istanbul to find those who wrote the document. tseibert@thenational.ae