Turkish Generals Subject To Searches In Sign Of Mistrust

When hundreds of generals and officers from all ranks flocked to Anitkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, to mark the 93rd anniversary of the republic on Saturday, they were shocked by what they went through as they entered the site of ceremony. 

Mostly noncommissioned officers, the lowest rank in the army, stopped five-star generals to search their body and personal items for security check at the entrance. The check points were set up at the entrance of the area to make sure that no general or other military officer carried non-wanted elements along with them to the ceremony.

The search is more than a security check practice and reveals a deep mistrust of government officials against army members since an abortive coup on July 15. And more than that, it is an insult that inflicts a psychological blow to the once distinguished members of the army, which is now as fractured as could ever be.

The failed putsch on July 15 plunged the army into an uncharted territory as relations between officers of different ranks have been severely poisoned. The government interference, once unimaginable, is the key driving element in reshaping Turkey’s formerly autonomous military.

As experts warn about disastrous effects of factionalism for the army where political loyalty now replaces decades-old culture of military professionalism and merit after thousands of officers were dismissed in the sweeping post-coup purge. 

In a series of pictures that went viral on the social media, noncommissioned officers are seen searching generals, a situation that was certain to humiliate the military establishment. The coup also saw that mostly noncommissioned officers took the side of the government and confronted rebel troops and generals on July 15.

The coup left 241 people, mostly civilians, police and rebel troops dead while nearly 2,000 people wounded when a small faction of the army dismally tried to overthrow the Turkish government, only to fail due to the infighting among putschist soldiers.

One of the lasting and profound impact of the attempted coup was to destroy traditional military hierarchy and relations between officers. There were a number of videos featuring low-ranking officials insulting generals who took part in the failed uprising and even beat them in the aftermath of the coup. While many generals did not join the attempt, they still failed to escape the wrath of a government that was psychologically insecure as ever.

But the scope of purges came as a shock to many observers who doubt the government narrative that all of those dismissed generals would have anything to do with the attempted coup. Almost half of generals and admirals were sacked, while nearly half of the Turkish Air Forces’ experienced pilots have been either arrested or dismissed.

Apart from near insurmountable challenge of rebuilding a credible and deterrent force again, the army found itself in a risky military foray into neighboring Syria and an impending operation near Mosul on a hostile territory. 

The Turkish military consists of three major elements. One is the officer corpses who go to the military academy for promotion though ranks and represent the elite side of the army who dream of reaching to the top level one day. But this is not an option for non-commissioned officers and sergeants who, in tens of thousands, constitute another class in all branches of the military — air, navy and ground forces. In Gendarmerie, the military police in rural areas, the non-commissioned officers even constitute the core component and majority of the forces. Often seen as the underdogs of the military, they form the main structure of the fighting troops in the Southeast in counter-insurgency operations against Kurdish rebels. Both of these two groups represent the professional forces of the military, while a third group, conscripts and privates, who serve their compulsive military service for a certain period of time, make the non-professional forces. 

The humiliating pictures come at a time when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top government officials warned against a possible second uprising. First, in late September retired Col. Atilla Ugur warned that a second attempt could take place in November and it would be more bloody than the first one.

Incumbent Chief of Staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, however, ruled out such scenarios after a high military council meeting at the beginning of October in Ankara, and said he sees another attempt as highly unlikely. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu even threatened to crush those who plan to take another attempt by any possible means available. Of all scenarios, the political discourse and body language of Erdogan prove that he and his government indeed take such talk as serious.

More than 110,000 public officials have been purged, nearly 80,000 people detained while 37,000 have been arrested on bogus coup charges. The level of crackdown has no limits and bounds. Erdogan, a master of uncanny political acumen, is well aware of the emerging resentment and feeling of abandonment on some segments of the society, including the military elites. 

The increasing security apparatus around his personality is a testimony to this reality as well as his rising fears about would-be threats against himself. 

Equally important is another point that pro-government columnists and writers only add fuel to public debate about a possible second coup. Akit columnist and an Erdogan ally Abdurrahim Dillipak publicly called for individual armament among government supporters, while Yenisafak Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim Karagul mapped out strategies for battles, street by street, “against traitors” in case of a second attempt. He warned that the battle is not over yet and a final showdown was soon approaching.

But what really disturbs someone is the fact that some pro-government figures even suggested mass massacre of sympathizers of the Gulenist movement in prisons in case of a second uprising. Government holds the movement and Gulen as the mastermind behind coup and already declared that if there is another attempt, it would be Gulen’s work. The cleric denies any involvement.

Appear disturbed by such talk at a government level, after confessions by Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek, and Rize governor, that there were record applications for individual arm licenses over the past few months, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Eren Erdem said the government would only stop a second attempt by more democracy, not by arming people.

Another CHP deputy Sezgin Tanrikulu even submitted a parliamentary question in Parliament, asking the government whether it has anything to do with recent calls for armament among citizens, mostly its supporters. He questioned whether the government is behind #AkSilahlanma, a trending topic on Twitter, that calls AKP supporters to arm themselves for a second fight. 

Against this backdrop, the pictures taken in Anitkabir on Saturday, have now their contextual meaning and relevance as they reveal underlying deep fear of the government. For Erdogan, until he gets executive presidency and crushes every single critic and non-loyalist, the battle is far from over, and nobody is trustworthy.