Friday, 19 June 2009

General Staff Wages Two-Front Battle, Against Coup Plotters and Gülenists

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 2, no. 12 of the Turkey Analyst) 

Once again, commentators raise the question whether there is a risk of a military coup in Turkey. There is no reason at all to believe that the General staff entertains any such thoughts. However, recent developments have nevertheless provided a reminder that the military’s position remains delicate. The Chief of the General staff, General Ilker Başbuğ, is in fact engaged in an awkward battle on two fronts, against old coup habits in the military, and against the challenge posed by the Islamic movement of Fethullah Gülen.

BACKGROUND: The publication in the pro-government Taraf daily a fortnight ago of what was presented as a blueprint for a campaign that the military allegedly prepared to wage against the AKP government and against the Fethullah Gülen movement created furor and sowed new confusion in Turkish politics. The document published by the daily was recovered by the police at the offices of a solicitor arrested as a suspect in the Ergenekon coup conspiracy case. The document, entitled “A blueprint for the fight against religious reaction”, and signed by a colonel of the navy, outlines the details of an “agent provocateur”-operation directed against the Governing party and the movement led by Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen.

Accordingly, “agents” were to infiltrate the AKP and make statements intended to create the impression that the party is indeed bent on overthrowing secular rule; weapons would be smuggled into locations associated with the Fethullah Gülen brotherhood, making it possible to take action against the movement once it had been labeled a “terrorist organization”.

Although the document undeniably exists, its authenticity was instantly called into question. Apparently, the document recovered by the police is not an original, but a copy. That will complicate the task of establishing whether or not it is a forgery. Secularist-nationalist commentators and representatives of the opposition denounced the document as a forgery, suggesting that it had been “planted” by the police, which they suspect is under the control of the Gülen movement. Several pro-government commentators, on the other hand, were in turn quick to jump to the conclusion that the document beyond any doubt proves that the military indeed remains uncomfortable with democratic rule and continues to scheme against the popularly elected AKP government.

Evidently, the record of recent history is of a kind to make both versions sound reasonably plausible. Sufficient evidence has surfaced during the last year to support the conclusion that there are indeed those in the military who do scheme, or would be prepared to scheme, to bring about the overthrow of the government. The ongoing Ergenekon investigation has produced insights into the working of the military that are incriminating; high ranking military officers have, so it seems, been involved in internal conspiracies as well as in schemes against the government since 2003.

The fact that the General staff did advertise its displeasure with Abdullah Gül’s election to the presidency in its infamous e-memorandum in April 2007 lends credibility to accusations leveled against the military for not abiding by the rules of democracy. There can be no doubt that the officers in general harbor an ideologically motivated resentment against the AKP government. The records, again made public by the daily Taraf, of some of the regular national security meetings that have been held between the representatives of the government and the General staff since the AKP came to power in 2002 reveal how deeply the government is mistrusted by the generals. Above all, the generals are wary that national unity, or more precisely Turkishness, would be endangered if too much emphasis is put on the Islamic identity of Turkey.

Meanwhile, it is also a fact that no military coup has taken place. The systematic leaks of materials from the Ergenekon investigation to AKP and Fethullah Gülen supporters in the media have contributed to creating the impression among the supporters of the secularist opposition that the revelations of supposed military conspiracies are intended only to smear the military. The authenticity of the latest, alleged coup document is thus easily called into the question.

IMPLICATIONS: Although the reactions, in particular in the media, have once again served to reveal Turkey as a sharply divided country – in its view of the AKP and of the military, respectively – the government and the General staff have in fact been at pains to handle the latest crisis in conjunction.  After an initial, harshly worded reaction immediately upon the publication of the blueprint, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refrained from further enflaming the situation with harsh statements. The Chief of the General Staff, Ilker Başbuğ, ordered an investigation into the matter on the spot. Even though the military prosecutor was conspicuously quick to establish that the General staff had not been responsible for the blueprint, the authorities underlined that the investigation is to be further pursued under the joint auspices of civilian and military prosecutors. And General Başbuğ vehemently denied that the plan to undermine the government could have been made up at the General staff, deeming it “outrageous” to intimate such a possibility.

General Başbuğ has on other occasions recently made strongly worded statements about the military’s commitment to democracy. Notably, Başbuğ has forcefully stated that those who harbor designs against democracy have no place within the military. These statements, as well the way the Chief of the General staff has handled the latest, alleged coup plot revelation, suggest that Başbuğ is indeed firmly committed to play by the democratic rules and furthermore intent on routing any potential conspirators within the military. The fact that General Başbuğ deems it necessary to make such strongly worded declarations suggests that the high command is indeed seriously worried that a “suicidal” attempt could take place outside the chain of command.

Such an attempt would be suicidal as it would stand no chance of succeeding, and as it would be devastating for the public standing of the military. It is no coincidence that despite the great resentment and mistrust toward the AKP government harbored by the General Staff, no military coup has taken place. The evidence suggests that not even those generals who are accused of having been involved in coup plots in 2003-2004 actually believed that their effort had any chance of being crowned with success. Nevertheless, in the ideologically charged atmosphere that reigns in the country, the military remains susceptible to manipulations.

Those who dismiss the alleged blueprint as a fabrication hold it to be improbable that any authentic coup plotters would have left any such evidence around, and as even less probable that they would have signed it. Yet, it has also been suggested that the document may be a proposal, intended to influence others in the military. It is not inconceivable that groups within the military, possibly in collusion with some retired officers, could be trying to force the hand of the General staff. Nor is it inconceivable that those who see the military as an obstacle in their way would deem it to be in their interest that the reputation of the armed forces is smeared.

The second front line on which General Ilker Başbuğ is engaged is against what is perceived to be the efforts of the Fethullah Gülen movement to secure a dominant position in the state, and notably to gain a foothold in the military. In a speech delivered at the War Academy in April, Başbuğ singled out the Gülen movement – which he referred to simply as “the cemaat” – as a challenge that he implied is going to be worn down.

Fethullah Gülen himself made a rare, public appearance – via a video message – after the disclosure of the alleged, military blueprint for action against the AKP and the Gülen movement. Speaking in a way that showed that he assumes that such a plan does exist, Gülen exhorted his followers to be undeterred, reminding them that the Prophet Muhammad and his followers had also faced similar efforts and had likewise not been deterred. It is indeed remarkable that Gülen places the supposedly un-political struggle in which his movement is engaged in such historic-religious context. Fethullah Gülen also took care to remind his audience of the importance of safeguarding the standing of the military as an institution. However, Gülen is the “outsider” in Turkey’s power equation.

CONCLUSIONS: The General Staff and the AKP government handled the crisis over the incriminating blueprint in concert; Prime Minister Erdoğan and General Başbuğ effectively saw to it that the high ranks of the state, government and military were closed. That avoided the perception that the institutions of the state were battling each other. Yet, the specter of AKP-General staff cooperation, which has notably evolved in response to the challenge posed by the Kurdish issue, is also threatening for those who are left at the sidelines as a consequence.

Hard line secularist-nationalists will continue to have trouble accepting the accommodation of the AKP, and could be enticed to try to force the hand of the General staff. Meanwhile, the Fethullah Gülen movement is sure to be wary of a cooperation that implies that it could be isolated. General Başbuğ has probably not fought off the last attempt to further particular ideological aims over the backs of the armed forces.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. 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".

Read 12872 times

Visit also





Joint Center Publications

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "The Rise and Rise of the Turkish Right", The New York Times, April 8, 2019

Analysis Halil Karaveli "The Myth of Erdogan's Power"Foreign Policy, August 29, 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell, A Road to Understanding in Syria? The U.S. and TurkeyThe American Interest, June 2018

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "Erdogan Wins Reelection"Foreign Affairs, June 25, 2018

Article Halil Karaveli "Will the Kurdish Question Secure Erdogan's Re-election?", Turkey Analyst, June 18, 2018

Research Article Svante E. Cornell "Erbakan, Kisakürek, and the Mainstreaming of Extremism in Turkey", Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, June 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell "The U.S. and Turkey: Past the Point of No Return?"The American Interest, February 1, 2018

Op-ed Svante E. Cornell "Erdogan's Turkey: the Role of a Little Known Islamic Poet", Breaking Defense, January 2, 2018

Research Article Halil Karaveli "Turkey's Authoritarian Legacy"Cairo Review of Global Affairs, January 2, 2018


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.


Sign up for upcoming events, latest news and articles from the CACI Analyst