Turkish Military and Politics
Admirals’ Memo Over Treaty: Another ‘Gift From God’ or Real Threat Against Erdogan?
Former admirals’ public criticism of the government over a new canal project in Istanbul would be a new gift to the Turkish leader whose popularity suffers during the pandemic.
At least 103 retired admirals penned down a statement (or memorandum in the military lexicon) to criticize the Turkish government’s intent to build a new canal in Istanbul that would call into question the Montreux Treaty that regulates international shipping through Turkey’s straits that links the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea via the Sea of Marmara. For a country rich with military takeovers of the civilian rule in the past, the admirals’ public demonstration of their displeasure about the state of affairs in Turkey in general, and the canal project in particular, has understandably stirred public controversy.
The statement came after Turkish Parliamentary Spokesman Mustafa Sentop mused the revision of the Montreux Convention by Turkey to finalize the opening of a new waterway in an effort to reduce the shipping traffic through Bosporus that demarcates the Asian continent from Europe. The 1936-signed treaty accrues conditional sovereignty to Turkey, which successfully utilized the worsening state of peace in international politics in the interwar period before WWII to re-assert its sovereign rights over the straits.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s lofty project to build a new waterway dubbed as “Canal Istanbul” remains a matter of ensuing controversy at home and abroad. The Russians registered their disapproval of the project on more than one occasion.
When Sentop publicly mulled the prospect of unilaterally ditching the Montreux, the former admirals chimed in.
“The fact that withdrawing the Montreux Convention was opened to debate as part of talks on Canal Istanbul and the authority to exist from international treaties was met with concern,” the admirals said, according to Associated Press.
The government often pledged its commitment to the Convention, but President Erdogan did not shy away from expressing his resolve to consider a revision in the treaty, if such a need emerges in the future.
The late-night release of the public memo on Sunday ruffled feathers in Ankara. The country has been consumed by a rousing debate over the textual semantics of the statement since then.
The stock response of the government was to read the memo as reminiscent of the “coup times” and a hint of another coup that may be in the offing. President Erdogan chided former admirals for their venture into politics and urged them to know their place. While the president’s press spokesman and his senior advisor wrapped the issue in coup-related terminology, doing so was more of a deliberate desire than fear. They were seized with a sudden urge to picture the press release exactly in the coup lens without fully investigating how and why it occurred.
At the behest of the government, the prosecutors did not waste time in launching a probe into the signatories of the memo and detaining 10 admirals who joined the declaration.
What to make of the former naval commanders’ thrust to politics not long after President Erdogan indisputably cemented his personal sway over the branches of the military with a sweeping purge of more than 7,000 officers, including 160 generals, in the aftermath of a botched coup in 2016 remains a bewildering question. This was the question that dogged discussion rooms on Clubhouse and the debate on social media where people of different political creed and social affiliation face fewer restrictions for speaking up their mind. What was removed in most of the dissensions was the fact that we are talking about a military, which has long lost its deterring and balancing role in Turkish politics. A bunch of retired admirals’ commentary is devoid of any weight in this regard.
It is highly unlikely that admirals would not have pondered over the possible ramifications of their public criticism of the government, including their potential arrest, before releasing the statement. They most probably held extensive deliberations before unleashing a political bombshell that quickly came to redefine the contours of public debate in a country still reeling from a tremendous surge in Covid cases over the past weeks.
The shared view is that admirals could not act upon themselves without consulting like-minded compatriots, fellow generals/admirals (active or retired), and politicians who share their lingering concerns for the direction of the country. The ringleader of the admiral ultimatum appeared to be linked with the opposition IYI (Good) Party. Ergun Mengi, the retired admiral, is a deputy chairman responsible for crafting and analyzing international policy prescriptions for the IYI Party. He is now in police custody.
Is this (so-called) memo another gift from God to Erdogan, or is it a public manifestation of the growing discontent among some quarters of the military about the government’s increasingly incompetent management of the economy, the inexorable drift away from Turkey’s secular founding principles, and the undermining of an international treaty that gives Ankara the upper hand over straits? Another question that lurks in the public mind is the prospect of secular uneasiness over Erdogan’s unmasked drive to reshape NATO’s second-largest military in his own image and political ideology.
Engin Buker, a purged navy officer who served in NATO, never rules out the early signs of another showdown over the promotion and appointment of the next line of commanders in the upcoming Supreme Military Council (YAS) meeting this August. The annual meeting often becomes a venue of a bitter contest between the government and the military leadership over shaping the military’s next command structure in different branches — general staff, navy, air force, ground forces, gendarmerie (national military police).
The balance of power has irrevocably tilted towards Erdogan’s government after a decade of muscle-flexing between elected civilians and the top brass. The 2016 abortive putsch proved a pivotal moment for Erdogan to finally push through for his vision for the Turkish military whose long trail of records involves three direct, one indirect military coup d’états that removed politicians from power. The first military intervention in 1960 was the most tragic one that saw the execution of the prime minister a year later. The last, ill-fated attempt was the bloodiest that resulted in the deaths of more than 250 people.
Both features in the president’s mind as the ever-present ghosts of a bloody past that never fades away. It lurks as an omnipresent challenge against his embattled rule and he never misses a chance to solicit renewed loyalty from his constituency by reminding the real or perceived threats in Turkey’s turbulent waters. In this respect, this memo, no matter the rationale or motivation behind it, may very well supply Erdogan with a public sentiment of raw grudge and a legitimate cause to act with impunity to crush the remaining elements of the old Turkey.
The Battle Over Turkey Is Not Over
The former admirals betrayed no scruples when they vented their frustration over the de-secularization of the military after the media leaks of an admiral donning a long rob (usually worn by certain folks associated with religious orders) over his uniform while praying. It proved the tipping point for some disgruntled seculars whose benign resentment in the face of full-throated Islamization of the military has only hardened into a firm conviction that if they remain silent now, they would never speak out their feelings later after it becomes too late, too little.
But the power struggle is not all about culture wars or Turkey’s century-old identity politics. It is also about who owns and rules the Turkish military, not to speak of the navy, which is at the heart of the national debate at the moment.
Buker, who worked for the Turkish navy as a staff officer, reminds that the navy remains the last stronghold of the secular segments and Dogu Perincek-affiliated ultra-nationalists whose late dalliance with Erdogan now exhibits signs of fraying. He notes that the alliance may be reaching the end of its natural limits after long-running irreconcilable differences that would eventually drive a wedge between Erdogan and the Perincek folks in the military or other sectors of the state bureaucracy.
It can conceivably be argued that one of the parties of the post-2016 political alignment between Erdogan’s AKP, Devlet Bahceli’s nationalist party, and Perincek folks test the resilience of this alliance of convenience against signs of a potential breakup in the near future. Across this line of logic, if this latest criticism has any meaning, it should be understood from the point of the future of the post-2016 alliance that governs Turkey (in a subtle form of power-share behind the scenes), not from the angle of the government’s overblown coup remarks.
Against this backdrop, the former navy officers’ calculated protest may be the result (and expression) of their deep-seated mistrust against Erdogan who, according to many former military officers I spoke or listened to on Monday, contemplates his final blow against the last vestiges of ancien regime in the military with an expected new purge this August. Well aware of Erdogan’s intentions, Buker mused that former admirals gave a warning shot about the depth of looming struggle, reminding the president that this time his penchant for the absolute, unquestioned mastery of the military may not be without consequences or resistance.
Regardless of how the drama plays out in the days or weeks to come, many commentators agree on the consensus that the memo extended a lifeline to Erdogan who fails to competently deal with the economic and social fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. Only a week ago, he ditched the president of the Central Bank, sent the Turkish lira tumbling against the U.S. dollar and other currencies, leading to further erosion of faith among the international investors about Turkey’s economic management.
With this new gift from admirals, the president may again play the victim to shore up his dwindling support among the masses who are more occupied with pressing bread and butter issues. His party already began to nurture another coup narrative. Whatever admirals’ motives might be, this public statement will certainly be a boon to the president in the August supreme military meeting where he would trample on any potential resistance over his plans for the military or any political/social objective. The dissenters would easily be linked back to this ill-considered memo and would definitely face purge without any prospect of remedy.