Turkish PM eyes chance to pick military high command
Updated: 2011-08-02 11:30
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) chairs the annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAS) as he is flanked by Ground Forces Commander and acting Chief of Staff General Necdet Ozel in Ankara August 1, 2011. Erdogan chaired a meeting of the military top brass on Monday, looking to restore order in NATO's second-biggest army after its top four generals quit in protest at the jailing of hundreds of officers. The long-running strains between the secularist military and Islamist-rooted government boiled over on Friday when Chief of General Staff Isik Kosaner stepped down, along with the army, navy and air force commanders, leaving the armed forces in disarray. [Photo/Agencies]
Erdogan convened the Supreme Military Council (YAS) as scheduled on Monday despite the presence of only nine of the 14 generals who would normally attend the twice-yearly meeting to decide key promotions in NATO's second largest armed force.
The meeting will run for four days.
Long-running strains between the secularist military and the ruling conservative AK Party, which has Islamist roots, boiled over on Friday when Chief of General Staff Isik Kosaner resigned, along with the army, navy and air force commanders, in protest at the arrest of fellow officers.
The fifth general missing from Monday's meeting was one of some 250 officers now jailed on charges linked to various alleged anti-government plots dating back to 2003.
The resignations will enable Erdogan to consolidate control over a once-omnipotent military that has staged three coups since 1960 but whose power has been curbed by European Union-backed reforms since pushing an Islamist-led government out of power in 1997.
"The transition from the old guard in the military high command to the new will be relatively smooth," said Royal Bank of Scotland analyst Timothy Ash.
At the heart of the matter is the alleged "Sledgehammer" plot, based on events at a 2003 military seminar. Officers say evidence against them has been fabricated and that allegations of a coup plot arose from a mere war games exercise.
Chairing the YAS meeting, Erdogan sat alone at the head of the table where normally he would sit beside the chief of staff. Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz also attended.
Erdogan has moved quickly to designate former gendarmerie chief General Necdet Ozel as acting chief of staff, who has been portrayed positively as a constitutionalist in pro-government media. Ozel is not expected to be confirmed as the overall commander until the key promotions are announced on Thursday.
Erdogan did not take part in the YAS afternoon session and instead held direct talks with Ozel. The prime minister then met the head of Turkey's intelligence agency and Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin. No statements were made.
The council meeting will resume on Tuesday morning.
The prime minister joined the generals in a traditional visit to the mausoleum of soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, on a hill in the capital.
The army has hitherto regarded itself as the guardian of Ataturk's secularist vision for a republic he established in 1923 out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
After laying a wreath at Ataturk's tomb, Erdogan wrote in the mausoleum visitors' book: "Our armed forces are making a major advance in their defence duties and through improving their vision."
President Abdullah Gul has denied that the resignations have triggered a crisis and financial markets shrugged off the resignations on Monday.
Erdogan's regular address to the nation on Saturday focused on plans for a new constitution in the EU-candidate country, which is touted as a democratic model for a region cast in turmoil.
But the generals' protest over what they say is the unjust way the Sledgehammer case is being prosecuted has clouded the start of Erdogan's third term in office.
His AK Party won 50 percent of the vote in a parliamentary election in June, and the dispute risks deepening a polarisation in Turkish politics and society at a time when consensus is needed for proposed constitutional changes.
But the election result showed voters cared more about a booming economy than criticism that Erdogan was amassing too much power.
Initial fears of a broader clash developing between the military and the government have receded, according to Ash.
"The consensus over the weekend is that the resignations mark the final end of the military's dominant position in Turkish society and finally show civilian control over the military has been established," he said.
However, analysts have express concerns about how the jailing of so many officers and disruption in the top ranks is affecting the military's operational ability as it faces a fresh wave of guerrilla violence.
In a reminder of that challenge, Kurdish guerrillas killed three soldiers in a clash in eastern Turkey on Monday.
Just how much control Erdogan wants to exert at this stage should be clear once the promotions are known. The government opposes some leading candidates while others are on trial accused of trying to overthrow the government.
Among those at the YAS was Aegean Army commander General Nusret Tasdeler, whose attendance had been uncertain after prosecutors ordered his arrest last week along with 21 others over claims that the military set up anti-government websites.
This latest case was seen as one of the triggers behind the resignations of Kosaner and the other generals.
"The most keenly awaited issue is who will be appointed to head the land forces command," said Milliyet columnist Fikret Bila, who has close links to the military.
Potential candidate General Saldiray Berk is likely to be ruled out as he faces trial related to "Ergenekon", an alleged secret network intent on undermining the AK party.
The commander of Turkey's military academies, General Bilgin Balanli, previously in line to take over the air force, is in jail.
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