The conviction of hundreds of Turkish officers for plotting a coup has dealt a blow to the army at a time when it’s facing an onslaught by Kurdish militants and tensions on the Syrian border.
A court last week sentenced 324 serving and retired army personnel, including top generals, to as much as 20 years in prison for plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003. The defendants pleaded not guilty, saying some of the evidence was faked, and have begun the process of appealing the verdict.
The army, traditionally a supporter of Turkey’s secular system, has seen its power and prestige eroded in the decade since Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party came to power. The latest reverse may impair its ability to tackle mounting threats, as a civil war rages in neighboring Syria and Kurdish fighters stage their biggest offensive since the 1990s. In their latest attack, a bomb killed six soldiers and one civilian yesterday in the eastern city of Tunceli.
“Morale is at an all-time low, and morale is very important for armies,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, an ex-officer and security analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara, said by telephone. “It would not be surprising if junior officers started questioning some orders from their superiors,” after watching the conviction of fellow officers who simply obeyed orders from generals, he said.
The general staff did not return calls seeking comment. “We deeply feel and share the sorrow of our comrades in arms and their families,” it said on its website today. The army stressed its respect for the law and said it monitored the case with “patience, fortitude, cool-headedness and common sense.”
Turkey has deployed anti-aircraft guns to the Syrian border and warned it may retaliate after the downing of a Turkish jet by Syrian forces in June. Erdogan has backed the rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad and allowed their forces to operate from Turkish territory.
Clashes with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for autonomy in largely Kurdish southeast Turkey since 1984, have left more than 700 people dead this year. The army has stepped up operations aimed at eliminating the group’s fighters in a mountainous area near the borders with Iran and Iraq, Hurriyet newspaper said on Sept. 24. The PKK is classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union.
The fighting endangers Turkey’s growing trade with Middle Eastern nations, on which the economy in the southeast of the country depends, and hurt the balance of payments, said Tim Ash, head of emerging market research at Standard Bank Group Ltd.
The government is seeking a one-year extension of a parliamentary mandate authorizing it to send troops into northern Iraq, where the PKK has its main bases, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said this week. Turkey has carried out cross-border attacks in the past, most recently in February 2008, in response to intensified attacks.
Iran and Iraq ranked first and third among Turkey’s external markets in the first seven months of the year, with total sales of $14 billion or about a sixth of total exports. Increased trade with the Middle East has helped soften the impact of the slowdown in Turkey’s biggest export market, the European Union.
“The military faces huge regional challenges, and the morale of the military and its fighting capacity is important,” Ash said by phone from London yesterday. “The political administration has to establish what its priorities are.”
Ash argued in a report this week that political challenges, pre-eminently the intensified conflict with the PKK, have replaced macro-economic weaknesses such as the current account deficit as the “bigger risks to Turkey.”
The country’s $800 billion economy is set to post growth of close to the government’s 4 percent target this year, and more than that in 2013, while the current account gap narrows to less than 7 percent of economic output, from about 10 percent last year, central bank Governor Erdem Basci said last week. Turkey’s benchmark stock index has gained more than 30 percent this year, triple the gain on the MSCI Emerging Markets benchmark.
The Kurdish conflict has left as many as 40,000 dead and cost Turkey as much as $450 billion, according to a report this month by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which specializes in mediation. It peaked in the first half of the 1990s and eased after the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.
In the face of escalating violence, the government has signaled the possibility of restarting talks with the PKK, which broke down in 2010. Ocalan may be included in the negotiations, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin told NTV television last night. The PKK has long insisted that Turkey should hold direct talks with Ocalan, an option previously ruled out by authorities.
Generals jailed by the Istanbul court included Engin Alan, best known for supervising Ocalan’s transfer to Turkey after he was seized in Kenya. Alan was elected to parliament in 2010 while serving time in jail pending the verdict. He couldn’t take up his seat.
The defendants denied charges of attempting to topple the government by force by such measures as planning bomb attacks on major mosques and other targets, to stir up chaos that would open the way for a military coup.
Ibrahim Firtina and Ozden Ornek, heads of the air force and navy at the time, were given life sentences commuted to 20 years because the plot failed. Other generals including former chief of staff Ilker Basbug are in jail pending trial on separate coup-plot charges.
The government has backed the investigations. “We want our army to be the best professional army, and not involved in designing politics,” Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told Kanal 7 television on Sept. 23.
Critics accuse the government of score-settling with the secular military, which toppled three governments since 1960 and pressured the country’s first Islamist prime minister out of office in 1997. “They have tried for so long to finish the Armed Forces, and today they struck the final nail in its coffin,” Hurriyet quoted Tolga Ornek, son of the imprisoned navy chief, as saying after the verdict.
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