The death of a general “in his labyrinth”

Turkey's former Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt died at the age of 79. Being one of the most controversial figures in Turkish political and military history, Büyükanıt is known with two significant events, with one leading Turkey into a political turmoil and forcing early elections.

“I know them, they are good lads”.

With these few words the late General Yaşar Büyükanıt became the focus of public interest. The general, then commander of the Turkish Land Forces, was referring to two murder suspects linked to the bombing of a bookshop in the Kurdish majority town of Şemdinli in Turkey’s southeast. 

The November 2005 bookshop bombing and the turmoil in its aftermath left five dead, with the two perpetrators, both of them senior non-commissioned officers of the army, being captured red-handed by the public fleeing the scene. Their vehicle, which was registered to the Gendarme Forces, was found packed with firearms and grenades, while the perpetrators were also found to be carrying a hit-list of Kurdish deputies and local politicians. 

The nature of this self-confessed connection between the murder suspects and their commander was curious not only for the Turkish and Kurdish public but for prosecutors too. However, the prosecutor who investigated the general’s involvement would himself end up behind bars on charges of “conspiring to degrade Turkish armed forces’ command structure”, while Büyükanıt was promoted to the then highest position of Turkey’s state structure: Chief of General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces. Paradoxically, it is precisely the “highness” of this position that he would radically compromise during his time in command. 

Until the turn of the century, the military-bureaucratic elites were perceived as the peak of Turkey’s power pyramid; with the elected political elites allowed to operate under their constant supervision. The military’s self-image in their Platonic mirror was that of “the guardians of the republic”. Whenever the parliamentary process dragged the country into political turmoil or economic crisis, or attempted to “move away from the founding principles of the republic”, the military would step in to restore order. The executive, judicial and legislative powers of the state were as a whole subject to the “checks and balances” of the military authorities, which led to a system of periodic military coups.

Last stand

In 2006, when Büyükanıt assumed the highest position, the standoff between the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the conventional secular powers of the republic was still unresolved. The failure of the 1997 “postmodern coup” to initiate a comprehensive re-secularization was illustrated in the pro-Islamist AKP’s landslide victory in the 2002 general election. When the time for presidential elections arrived, General Büyükanıt would stage a final stand against the Islamists. For the military, along with the secular urban masses, government’s presidential candidate Abdullah Gül was unacceptable simply because the secular Turkish republic could not be represented by a headscarved “first lady” – Gül’s wife Hayrünnisa. This theme dominated the mood of secular mass demonstrations of 2007 calling on the army “to duty”. 

The Chief of Staff’s headquarters responded to this call with a “memorandum” issued on the internet on the evening of 27 April, 2007, in the aftermath of Gül’s election as president by the parliament. The memorandum emphasized that the presidential debate was threatening the secular structure of the country and that the army was determined to defend secularism.

Dolmabahçe’s secrets

The AKP, instead of stepping back, met the challenge and called snap elections for July, which would give the party another landslide victory and assured Gül’s presidency.

Between the military memorandum and the snap elections, however, a very peculiar event in Turkey’s history took place. On May 4, 2007, the chief of staff was summoned to Istanbul by then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The two rivals at the peak of the nation’s power structure had a two-and-a-half-hour conversation behind the closed gates of Dolmabahçe Palace. After the meeting, Erdoğan said: “This meeting will go to the grave with me. I believe General Büyükanıt also thinks the same. If Büyükanıt attempts to disclose then I will also disclose the details of our conversation”.

Now with the general’s body finally resting in his grave, speculation on the secrets of this peculiar duel has been triggered once again. One such unauthorized disclosure came from Fikri Sağlar, a senior figure of the opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), who claimed that Erdoğan presented the general with records of his wife’s luxurious spending, which she allegedly funded from the military’s budget. Other speculation about the general’s family secrets said to have been discussed in this meeting is allegedly even more scandalous. Besides, Wikileaks’ revelations would later indicate that Turkish security officials handed over the details of these secrets to the American administration in a briefing on the Ergenekon trials held at the US Embassy in Ankara on 21 November 2008.  

Whatever the truth may be, its role in Büyükanıt’s historic about face is obvious. The Dolmabahçe meeting was probably the moment when the general realized that, after a lifetime of service, he had not been climbing the stairs to the peak of his career as the de facto ruler of his country, but walking hopelessly among the dead ends of a blind labyrinth.

The mother of all liquidations

The general’s labyrinth proved in a short time to be dead end for the Turkish military’s command structure as a whole. Investigations dubbed the Ergenekon case were launched in June and July 2007 over allegations of a plot to stage a military coup, with many among the top brass being indicted. Hundreds would be expelled from the ranks of the army, navy and air force, including generals and admirals as a result of the Ergenekon investigations that began during Büyükanıt’s term in office. Later, the indictments and detentions would expand to include even more senior figures, such as Büyükanıt’s successor as chief of staff, General İlker Başbuğ. It looked as if the armed forces of the republic were being liquidated.

According to Erdoğan, what was destructed in this labyrinth was not the military itself but “political tutelage”, that is, the conventional weight of the military in Turkey’s political establishment. For many, the AKP was simply avenging the February 28 1997 secularist coup, which had seen the military force Turkey’s first pro-Islamist led government from office. For others, Erdoğan’s new Islamist oligarchy was removing the obstacles on the road to their mono-party rule. The general sat in his headquarters and silently watched the evaporation of the very foundations of his power base.

A last attempt at heroism?

The Kemalist/secular bloc, however, did not give up resistance, arguing that the AKP was soft on the Kurds and that the outlawed militant group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was gaining ground as the government weakened the strength and morale of the Turkish armed forces with these trials. It is against this critical background that General Büyükanıt ordered a cross-border operation into northern Iraq to strike at PKK camps in the region. Operation Sun was launched in severe winter conditions and lasted for eight days. While Turkish authorities declared that the aims of the operation were achieved, the PKK claimed a victory over Turkish forces following their withdrawal. The secrets of this incursion, which looks like a tactical mistake in terms of its timing and conduct, were not thoroughly discussed during the general’s lifetime.

Retirement: “No one writes to the General”

The silent general’s last step in his labyrinth was his retirement in August 2008, the prize of which was a luxurious armored vehicle allocated to his and his family’s service personally by then Prime Minister Erdoğan. 

Büyükanıt did not make a single statement on the imprisonments and trials of so many of his comrades in arms during the years of his retirement. Nor did he comment on their release and eventual acquittals and the indictment and imprisonment of the judges, prosecutors and police chiefs who had initiated Ergenekon, Balyoz and similar operations targeting the military personnel. Büyükanıt also witnessed the July 15 coup attempt in 2016, which led to another wave of arrests and imprisonments among the top military ranks, for the charges of affiliation to the Fethullah Gülen’s parallel state organization. Witnessing all these power shifts and upheavals, the general had not a word to say. The sole statement he made all through those years was that he himself had drafted and publicized the “military memorandum” back in 2007. 

In summary, Büyükanıt kept his vow to his dying day to not disclose a single detail about his suspected links to the Şemdinli bombers or the details of the Dolmabahçe conversation. However, the dramatic shakeups in Turkish political structures that he also has witnessed as a pensioner do reveal some curious clues not only about Dolmabahçe’s secrets but also on the nature of the labyrinth that he dragged the country in to on his downward journey. 

* Gabriel Garcia Marquez, narrates General Bolivar’s final journey in The General in His Labyrinth. Although there can be no comparison, the title of this novel has been a source of inspiration here. Also the subtitle towards the end of the text was inspired by Marquez’s No One Writes to the Colonel.