İlker Başbuğ: political weathervane?

Başbuğ’s imprisonment was a turning moment in AKP’s consolidation of power. His release was also the symbol of a dramatic shift in AKP’s and Erdoğan’s stance against their former Gülenist allies. And now, as İlker Başbuğ is again on the stage, there is all the more reason to suspect that we are on the brink of a substantial turn in the state and society.

“The chief of one of the world's most powerful armies has been accused of leading a terrorist organization. The judgment rests with the Turkish nation.”

This is what the former chief of the Turkish General Staff General İlker Başbuğ had to say upon his arrest on Jan. 6, 2012. His arrest and the subsequent imprisonment for 26 months was a first in history, symbolising – at least for the AKP pundits of the time – the decisive finale of the military tutelage over political process. His eventual release and acquittal also marked another shift of momentum: the turning of the tide against the Gülenist judiciary and security personnel.

Having graced these historical points of the AKP’s term in power, his most recent appearance on the political agenda may well herald yet another turning point. 

Following a call by Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) for an investigation into the political leg of “FETÖ” as the AKP has dubbed the movement founded by Fethullah Gülen, Başbuğ took the stage to point to some top names in the AKP ranks, consisting of the signatories of a legislative amendment dating back to 2009. The amendment empowered civil courts to try military personnel, formerly the sole jurisdiction of military courts. In this way the inclusion of military suspects in the Ergenekon case and the launch of the Balyoz investigation, cases that allegations of plots to overthrow the ruling AKP and which directly targeted the entire command structure of the Turkish military, became possible. For Başbuğ, this amendment was the crucial move of the Gülenists to implement their conspiracy against the military establishment. 

As events have unfolded since Başbuğ’s latest sortie indicate, his narrative and that of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the rise and fall of the Gülenists do not correspond. Unlike Başbuğ, Erdoğan maintains the view of liberation from military tutelage as the results of the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, and the extensive purges through the military ranks that accompanied them. For him, whatever was been done prior to Dec. 17, 2013, when the war between Gülen and Erdoğan was declared following the launching of a judicial investigation into alleged government corruption, are performances of his and AKP’s political will. Erdoğan publicly criticized Başbuğ’s claims and called the parliamentary deputies to take the latter to the court again for dishonouring the legislative power.

İlker Başbuğ served as an officer in the Turkish army between 1962 to 2010. In 2002, he was promoted to the rank of general and became the chief of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in 2008. Over the course of the two years that he held the position of Chief of Staff saw a most dramatic purge of military ranks: dozens of military officers, including generals, were arrested and charged with conspiring to overthrow the government. The Turkish public witnessed for the first time police raids on military bases, where documents related to the alleged “Balyoz” conspiracy were discovered. Some military personnel had already been jailed in connection with the Ergenekon investigation and some additional investigations were launched leading to the arrests among various military ranks.

Tragedy of a devoted Kemalist 

Following the completion of his time in office, Başbuğ would also face similar charges and put behind the bars in 2012. He was tried along with the Ergenekon suspects and initially sentenced to life imprisonment. In March 2014, following a decision by the Constitutional Court, Başbuğ was released. The Ergenekon case would eventually conclude with acquittals.

Başbuğ is known for his Kemalist convictions. He is the author of a number of books, mostly dealing with Kemalist principles as well as a biography of Atatürk. As such, he did everything in his power – especially after becoming commander of the Land Forces in 2006 – to combat pro-Islamist and anti-secular tendencies among the military ranks. His ordeal later as the first Chief of Staff to be imprisoned in Turkish history is viewed as the revenge of the Islamists; it was in fact the peak point in the long conflict between the secularist and Islamist wings of the state and society.

Başbuğ, like many of the formerly imprisoned military personnel, backed the AKP’s and Erdoğan’s subsequent war with the Gülenists. He also expressed support for the government’s hardline turn against the Kurds following the June 2015 elections and the ongoing cross border incursions, which mainly aim to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish entity in north Syria. His position on these issues is parallel to that of many former Ergenekon and Balyoz suspects, along with the secularist/Kemalist sectors of society. 

Erdoğan’s anti-Kurdish shift since the June 2015 general elections and his anti-Gülen stance since December 2013 enjoyed support from the right, left and the centre of secularist and nationalist echelons of the Turkish state and society. The de facto coalition with the nationalist MHP symbolized this active consent. The backstage talk of politics was that, after falling out with Gülen and alienating the Kurdish electorate, Erdoğan had to strike new alliances with his former rivals, including the Ergenekon suspects and the elements of the “deep state”. Retired army commanders, former police chiefs, mafioso elements and “Eurasianist” preachers all rallied behind Erdoğan’s ambition to establish a presidential system. The same period also coincided with the rapprochement with Russia,particularly since 2015.

New course, new sacrifices?

However, a new report by Rand Corporation on Turkey entitled “Implications for the U.S.–Turkish Strategic Partnership and the US Army” claims discontent among Turkish military’s mid-ranking officers and says that the possibility of a new coup attempt cannot be ruled out. The report also mentions Defence Minister Hulusi Akar’s name as the key partner of the U.S. in the Turkish government and predicts a fall out between Russia and Turkey in 2020. 

Some recent unusual developments can be seen in association with the Rand Corporation report by Turkey observers. One of these was the absence from the country of well-known organised crime figure Sedat Peker, which was noticed recently. Peker is known for threatening Erdoğan’s political rivals, particularly with his threat to the 1128 academics who signed an anti-war petition against the rights violations in Kurdish provinces, “I will shower with their blood”. Last week, Peker issued a statement saying that he was in the “Balkans” studying at a university. In the same statement he hinted that he has problems with some police chiefs and prosecutors. Along with being linked to other criminal activity, Peker was also tried and sentenced on charges associated with Ergenekon.

In early February, Erdoğan requested from the Ukrainian president the extradition of Nuri Gökhan Bozkır, an Ergenekon suspect. Bozkır’s name has been associated with deep state operations, including the assassination of Necip Hablemitoğlu, a secularist historian, in 2002. Recently, Bozkır was allegedly involved with the military training of the jihadist groups in south Turkey and with the transportation of arms to jihadists in Syria. He currently resides in Ukraine. 

When read in conjunction with the Rand report, these unusual developments were interpreted by sensitive observers as early signs of a new turn against the “deep state”. They point out that Erdoğan has gone far enough with the liquidation of the Gülenists and that he is now in preparation of a pre-emptive strike against his “deep state” allies, whom he suspects of turning against him. 

Erdoğan has also flagged some early indications of ending the Russian rapprochement, including in particular his visit to Ukraine on Feb. 3 when he promised military aid to the Ukrainian army and issued anti-Russian messages. In recent weeks, Turkish troops suffered casualties in Idlib province of north Syria, with the situation coming to the brink of armed conflict with the Russian military. Talks with the Russian delegates have to date not yielded any results and the tension continues to escalate. 

In these circumstances, statements of support from NATO, the visit to Ankara by Washington’s special envoy on Syria, James Jeffrey, and the lifting of U.S. sanctions imposed on some senior Turkish figures over Ankara’s military incursions into Syria constitute a cluster of meaningful coincidences. Erdoğan may be considering a return to Turkey’s decades long alliance with the U.S., a turn that would necessitate the sacrifice of his former pro-Russian allies, including the nationalist, secularist and Eurasianist critics.

The “political leg” controversy

“If we say FETÖ does not have a political leg this would be a denial of reality” Ilker Başbuğ said at the critical conjuncture described above. He has invited the public to start a discussion on AKP’s past alliance with their current arch-enemies. If this call is not suppressed and met with popular interest, then the next step could well be an appeal for the defence of secular-republican principles against Islamization, and an end to regional adventurism in favour of the effective defence of national borders, etc. Not only the mid-ranking military officers but also the opposition parties, primarily the CHP, are unlikely to remain indifferent to such an appeal. This probably is how Erdoğan reads Başbuğ’s statement, and it is the precise reason why he felt the urge to confront him. 

Başbuğ’s imprisonment was a turning moment in AKP’s consolidation of power. His release was also the symbol of a dramatic shift in AKP’s and Erdoğan’s stance against their former Gülenist allies. And now, as İlker Başbuğ is again on the stage, there is all the more reason to suspect that we are on the brink of a substantial turn in the state and society.