Post-admirals’ statement, what really happened?

The Turkish government’s flurry of activity in response to the joint-statement of 104 retired admirals has been subject to intense scrutiny. After an Erdoğan speech, the government tantrum stopped suddenly. The way this incident unfolded, the context in which it was placed, the reactions, the actors, and the subsequent weirdness indicates that perhaps the domestic political element of the issue is not as concrete as has been claimed.

The joint statement of 104 retired admirals has been the hot topic in Turkey as of late. It was responded to with unusually intense official activity: All kinds of institutions, from the joint chiefs of staff to the land registry offices, subsequently issued declarations of “loyalty to the government.” Countless members of government walked through the door opened by Director of Communications Fahrettin Altun.

It was, per usual, the leader of the ruling alliance partner the Nationalistic Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, who voiced demands to “remove the epaulettes of these admirals, cut their salaries, even the bakers should not give bread to them.” Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu listed the threats, saying, “We will do that to you, we will really mess with you.” He later stated that they scanned the contacts and movements of the retired admirals and their close family members for the past month. An immediate investigation was launched, and a group of signatories were detained. While under detention, several courts – which will probably be assigned to their cases – issued statements condemning those people who will probably appear as defendants in their courts.

After such intense government mobility, everyone focused on what President Erdoğan was going to say after the meeting of the High Advisory Board. Just like with the manifesto at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) convention last month, Erdoğan delivered a speech that surprised many people.

Erdoğan was expected to start yelling “They, they, they….” as he did in 2007, 2010 and earlier years. Many thought Erdoğan would refer to the “military tutelage" years, and then circle around to the coup theme. Perhaps he would scold and fine tune “the enemies” and escalate the showdown. The expectation of the opposition was that the issue would be “stomped” out right there and there, but this did not happen.

Regarding the Montreux Straits Convention, Erdoğan retreated almost to saying, “there is no such issue.” He dodged the issue of the “admiral wearing a turban,” which was noted in the admirals’ statement, saying that “of course it is wrong; it is already being investigated.” He also said, “We've seen many similar ones before. They have spoken as if they're giving instructions, and they have CHP [main opposition, Republican People’s Party] members in their families. So, there is an implication of a coup d’état.” Now we will wait and see which of these accusations will constitute a crime during the investigation stage.

After Erdoğan gave this speech, the mobility and the government tantrum stopped suddenly. This caught the attention of many who asked, what happened? The columns, reviews, lobbies, rumors, speculations, and predictions kept pouring in. There was talk of a “sham fight” and “framed admirals.” There were claims that the “game” was abandoned before it got out of hand. It was also said that a provocation was feared to emerge within the ruling alliance, so they retreated. There were references to increased and decreased concerns regarding the timing of the move, which was disrupted by the admirals’ statement. There were dozens of responses.

It is almost impossible to rule out such responses, individually or all together. Some seem more plausible than others and some are just irrational. Which response is correct; that will continue to be discussed for days, weeks, maybe months, and years. There is unlikely to ever be an answer that will please everyone. However, the uncertainty in the air has reached such a level that even the most irrational possibilities have believers. Nobody can rule out any option. It becomes possible for every team to test the waters for its most irrational possibilities and make moves accordingly. There are also those who claim that everything was orchestrated according to a very specific agenda. There are those who detect both great genius and deep evil behind it all.

The way this incident unfolded, the context in which it was placed, the reactions, the active actors and the weirdness mentioned above make me think that the domestic political element of the issue is not as concrete as has been claimed. Erdoğan’s revealing his own position quickly and openly is not his usual manner of operating. Perhaps this is proof that a move or a negotiation was dodged.

I would like to specifically draw attention to two points that strengthen this opinion: First, the Atlantic alliance has taken steps to urge Russia and the Black Sea is warming via the Ukraine; Second, is Erdoğan’s reference to Montreux in his speech, in which he said, “We can't take full advantage of the straits; we are committed to the agreement until there is a better option.”

Since the Iraq Memorandum on March 1, 2003, Turkish foreign policy has been based on an ‘everything is subject to negotiation’ mentality. We have seen this in the foreign policy approach on the refugee issue. If there is anything negotiable, put it on the table; if there is no issue to negotiate, create one.

Let us also look at the domestic political dynamics. The way this incident happened does not align with the ways of operating that we are familiar with. It is somewhat difficult to explain why such a low-level move was carried out just to stomp on the opposition, as the government wants to do. It does not seem realistic that things simply got out of control, that the fear fomented a strong counter-reaction, or that ‘the game did not work.’ It is hard to believe that there was a sudden enlightening that they should not insist on a plan that does not work.

We should mention the opposition and how it has dealt with the crisis in such an unprepared and disorganized manner. Opposition İYİ Party leader Meral Akşener said the admirals’ statement was nonsense. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and CHP spokespeople tried to use the classic “this is not the real agenda of the country” rhetoric. The DEVA Party and the Future Party took the stance of “no to any coup.” We heard the unexpected “freedom of opinion” argument from the Felicity Party (SP). Overall, it looks as though there is serious political laziness within the opposition.

The opposition seems to be more than satisfied with the applause they receive for their highly irrational steps. As a result, the put their most incomprehensible efforts and exaggerated attributions on display. The opposition is so focused on the ‘not giving them a chance’ that their players end up running backwards, giving the rival players an extra opportunity to score. This situation is not going to change until the opposition recognizes that politics based on substance and fundamental principles are not simply an ideal or a moral attitude, but a positive and safe realistic position.