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Turkey’s top generals retire en masse

Turkey’s military brass has a long history of involvement in their country’s politics: The self-appointed defenders of Turkish secularism launched coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997 (the latter a so-called "post-modern" coup). But today, Turkey’s top generals stepped out of power, requesting early retirement from their posts en masse in the latest sign of tensions with ...

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey’s military brass has a long history of involvement in their country’s politics: The self-appointed defenders of Turkish secularism launched coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997 (the latter a so-called "post-modern" coup). But today, Turkey’s top generals stepped out of power, requesting early retirement from their posts en masse in the latest sign of tensions with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Among the four generals that requested retirement was army chief Gen. Isik Kosaner, along with the heads of the military’s land, naval, and air branches. Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu Ajansi reported that the generals tendered their retirement letters rather than resigned, a step that would have endangered their pensions.

President Abdullah Gul reportedly appointed Gen. Necdet Ozel, the head of gendarmerie and the highest-ranking remaining officer, as the new commander of the country’s ground forces and acting military chief.

Both the government and the military have so far been mum on the reason for the generals’ exit, but there is no shortage of disputes that could have finally boiled over. Just hours before the announcement, a Turkish court charged 22 people, including several generals, of carrying out a campaign to undermine the government. The generals’ retirement also comes three days before the Aug. 1 meeting of Turkey’s Supreme Military Council, a biannual meeting where key appointments to the military are made.

The government has supported an investigation into an alleged 2003 coup plot by the military, known as the "Sledgehammer" case, which has resulted in the arrests of almost 200 army officers. Forty-one suspects in the case are still active in the military, and the government has signaled its intention to block them from promotion at the annual August meeting. This is not the first time that the army and civilian government has appeared poised to clash over which soldiers are promoted to top posts: A similar standoff occurred in the run-up to the Supreme Military Council meeting in 2010 that eventually elevated Kosaner to chief of staff.

This debate goes to the core of the government and the military’s differing vision for Turkey’s future. AKP supporters contend that the government has introduced greater democracy in a country governed for decades by the army and the Istanbul-based business elite. The military and its supporters in Parliament accuse the AKP of slowly Islamizing Turkish society, turning it away from its traditional orientation to the West, and engaging in witch hunts against its opponents to silence dissent.

This is a debate that has long divided Turkey, and has only become more heated in recent months. When Turkey’s new Parliament met in June, 169 opposition deputies refused to be sworn into office, temporarily paralyzing the body. Once again, the source of dispute was a criminal investigation: The lawmakers were protesting court rulings that barred eight colleagues from taking office because they faced terrorism-related charges.

The Turkish government is now faced with a choice, and it must move quickly in order to have an interlocutor for the Aug. 1 meeting. It can replace the retired generals with army brass sympathetic to the AKP — no easy task in an institution trained to see itself as the defenders of the secular nature of the Turkish state. Or it can try to re-establish some kind of modus vivendi with the army, replacing the generals with another batch of secularists, which would constitute an implicit admission that it still lacks the muscle to reshape the military in its image. Whatever course Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan takes, however, the growing divisions in the country appear likely to endure.

Other indicators bode well for Turkey: Its economy has more than tripled in the past decade, and it is increasingly wielding political influence throughout the region, most notably in Egypt and Syria. But if the political problems at home continue to worsen, few around the world are going to be interested in following the new Turkish model — least of all the Turks.

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