Monday, 01 March 2010

Waiting for Başbuğ: the Aftermath of the Sledgehammer Operation Detentions

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By Gareth H. Jenkins (vol. 3, no. 4 of the Turkey Analyst)

The recent detention of 68 serving and retired military personnel by the Turkish police on suspicion of planning a coup in 2003 has reinforced the deep divisions in Turkish society and escalated the already dangerous tensions between the country’s powerful armed forces and the civilian government. Although there have been arrests of serving and retired military personnel in the past – particularly during the controversial Ergenekon investigation – both the scale of the latest detentions and the claims on which they are based are without precedent. As a result, General İlker Başbuğ, the chief of the General Staff,  is now under intense pressure to react; particularly from his colleagues in the officer corps, the vast majority of whom regard the detentions as the latest move in a politically-motivated campaign of lies and disinformation which ultimately aims to destroy the military as an institution.

As of February 28, 2010, Başbuğ had yet to issue any public comment about the detentions. But, if it were to continue indefinitely, even his silence would ultimately be regarded as being loaded with meaning; interpreted within the officer corps as a sign of weakness and amongst the general public as a tacit admission that the accusations are true.

On February 22, 2010, a total of 49 serving and retired members of the Turkish military were detained on suspicion of being involved in an alleged plot, purported codenamed the “Sledgehammer Operation”, to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). On February 26, 2010, the police detained another 18 serving military personnel and one retired officer. As of the beginning of March 2010, a total of 35 of those detained had been formally arrested and imprisoned pending trial.

The accusations are based on documents first published in the fiercely anti-military Taraf daily newspaper on January 21, 2010.Taraf claimed that the documents detail a plan by a junta within the military to destabilize the government through a series of staged provocations and, when the AKP failed to declare a state of emergency, seize power. According to the newspaper, the plan was discussed at a seminar at the headquarters of the Istanbul-based First Army in March 2003.

It is no secret that some high-ranking members of the Turkish military were deeply disturbed by the victory of the AKP in the November 2002 general election. It is also well-known that some were frustrated by the failure of General Hilmi Özkök, who served as chief of the General Staff from 2002 to 2006, to be more assertive in his dealings with the government. But, although it is likely that there were those who wished there was a way to maneuver the AKP out of power, there is no convincing evidence of any “coup plot” – much less of plans for the military to seize power in its own right.

High-ranking officers serving in the military at the time have admitted that a seminar was held in Istanbul on March 5-7, 2003 and was attended by 162 officers. They have also stated that one of the sessions involved a war gaming scenario similar to those conducted in other NATO countries on how the military would administer the country in the event of a crisis involving the collapse of the central government. This has also been confirmed by Özkök, who told the Star newspaper that he had approved the seminar. But the participants in the seminar have vigorously rejected suggestions that they were planning to stage a coup and have denied any knowledge of the staged provocations detailed by Taraf. Indeed, it is the details of these alleged provocations that raise the most serious questions about Taraf’s claims.

According to Taraf, the junta was planning to increase tensions with Greece by increasing the number of flights in disputed airspace over the Aegean in the hope of provoking the Greek Air Force into shooting down a Turkish plane. If this failed, the Turkish Air Force was to ditch one of its own planes over the sea and claim that it had been shot down by the Greeks. The Turkish Air Force was also to play a key role in generating public support for a military seizure of power through its display teams staging a series of air shows throughout the country.

More bizarrely, Taraf published extracts from documents which detailed plans to dress military cadets and conscripts performing their military service in religious attire – such as robes and turbans -- and stage a mass demonstration in Istanbul. Apparently, this would create the impression that Turkey was facing the threat of a radical Islamist takeover; although it is unclear how the cooperation of the cadets and conscripts could be ensured or how easy it would be to fool the Turkish public and press.

The documents published by Taraf also included plans – allegedly signed by a Gendarmerie captain and major -- to bomb mosques in Istanbul and kill worshippers. For example, they claim that, after the bombing of a mosque in the conservative neighborhood of Fatih, a member of the military would contact a local artisan who was known to be close to radical Islamists, persuade him to lead a protest against the bombing and this would then be used as a pretext for the military to press the AKP to declare a state of emergency to prevent a radical Islamist takeover.

Other documents published by Taraf include plans to establish a new cabinet under military tutelage, introduce a closed economy with restrictions on the movement of gold and foreign currency and appoint a member of the military to the board of every large firm and holding company in Turkey.

IMPLICATIONS: In the past, Islamist activists have been known to fabricate documents in order to try to discredit the Turkish military. In 2006, Islamists circulated forged documents purporting to show that Army Chief General Yaşar Büyükanıt was of Jewish origin in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent him from succeeding Özkök as chief of the General Staff.

However, this does not necessarily mean that some or all of the documents published by Taraf are forgeries. There are equally harebrained schemes and conspiracy theories circulating in Turkey in abundance. But it is extremely difficult to believe that such plans were discussed, much less adopted, by 162 military personnel, including – according to the prosecutors who ordered the detentions in late February – 29 generals and admirals.

More worrying is the implication in the prosecutors’ apparent belief that the so-called Sledgehammer Operation was discussed at the seminar in March 2003. Most Turkish military personnel do not choose whether or not to attend a seminar. They are ordered to do so by their superiors. If the prosecutors are implying that the alleged junta was able to ensure that only those already favorable to the idea of a coup attended the seminar, then it must have exercised extraordinary influence within the armed forces. If the junta did not control who attended the seminar then it was running a huge risk by openly discussing plans to topple the civilian government and seize power. Whichever the case, it is very difficult to understand how – if such plans really were discussed – Özkök, as chief of the General Staff, was unaware either of the junta or of what was discussed at the seminar. Yet, even though he has publicly acknowledged approving the seminar, the prosecutors have not even asked Özkök to give a statement about what he did or did not know.

This otherwise inexplicable oversight is probably explained by the tendency of AKP supporters to portray Özkök as a model chief of staff and a committed democrat who thwarted several coup attempts -- even if no convincing evidence has been produced to suggest that such attempts were actually made. But this image is incompatible with the Sledgehammer Operation being genuine. If Özkök was aware of the junta and/or plan, then his silence to date looks suspicious. If he was unaware of a plot being openly discussed by 162 of his subordinates – including 29 senior officers -- at a military seminar in Istanbul, then his competence is called into question.

Such considerations have reinforced the conviction in the Turkish officer corps that the detentions in the Sledgehammer investigation were aimed not at individual suspects but at the military as an institution. Perhaps more critical for Başbuğ, as he weighs up his options, is the belief amongst his colleagues that, unless something is done to stop them, the recent detentions are unlikely to be the last.

CONCLUSIONS: There has long been a general acknowledgement in the Turkish General Staff that the era of coups is over. Nevertheless, given the depth of discontent in the aftermath of the election of the AKP in November 2002, it is theoretically conceivable that individual officers – even a small cabal of disgruntled officers – may have contemplated ways of forcing the government from power.

It is also theoretically possible that the documents published byTaraf are not deliberate forgeries. But what is extremely difficult to believe is that they were openly discussed – even adopted – at a seminar attended by 162 military personnel and that no one else in the military ever heard about them. Consequently, if the so-called Sledgehammer Operation is genuine, the implication of guilt – or at least tacit complicity – would appear to extend well beyond the individuals accused to the military as an institution.

As a result, General Başbuğ is under intense pressure from serving and retired members of the officer corps to formulate an appropriate response. Few are likely to regard doing nothing as an option. Not only would most regard it as a tacit admission of guilt but there is a genuine concern that, unless it acts, the detentions and arrests will continue until the military is broken as an institution.

But Başbuğ’s options are limited. Merely issuing another warning similar to those he has issued in the past is unlikely to serve as a deterrent. It currently appears more likely that he will go on the offensive. In an interview published in Habertürk newspaper on February 11, 2010, Başbuğ warned that the General Staff was compiling “evidence” on who was behind what he described as an asymmetrical psychological war against the military. It is unclear when or how Başbuğ will respond to the Sledgehammer detentions or whether it will include details of the evidence he claims the General Staff has in its possession, but his current silence is unlikely to be permanent.

Gareth Jenkins, a Senior Associate Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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