General also vows to defeat critics who falsely linked army to alleged anti-government coup attempt
One of Turkey’s most senior army commanders has warned the Islamist-rooted government that it will face a powerful military backlash if it seeks to alter the country’s secular system.
General Isik Kosaner also vowed to defeat domestic critics who, he said, falsely linked the army to an alleged anti-government coup attempt known as Ergenekon, and complained that the fight against violent Kurdish "terrorists" was being hampered by new human rights legislation aimed at enhancing Turkey’s EU membership bid, which the government strongly backs.
The comments were delivered in a setting calculated to have maximum political impact, a military ceremony attended by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and President Abdullah Gul, who both last month escaped a political ban when the constitutional court narrowly decided against closing the governing Justice and Development party (AKP) for allegedly plotting an Islamic state.
Kosaner said the army was determined to defend the unitary secular state founded by Ataturk and brushed off accusations of political meddling.
"Protection of fundamental characteristics of the republic cannot be considered an intervention in domestic politics," he said.
The remarks were an apparent signal that the AKP remains on probation after the court ruling, in which judges fined the party for being a "focal point of anti-secularism" but stopped one vote short of closing it. They were also a rebuff to the EU, which criticized the case as judicial interference and which also supports greater rights for the Kurds.
The army has played a pivotal role in Turkish politics since the modern republic was founded in 1923 and has ousted four governments in the past 50 years. It tried unsuccessfully to block Gul’s election as president last year because of concerns over his Islamist past and is widely assumed to have backed the closure case brought by the chief prosecutor.
Kosaner gave the latest demonstration of its clout while handing over command of the gendarmerie to become the new head of the land forces, making him effectively second in command of the army.
He said the army’s status as Turkey’s most revered institution was under attack from "certain circles" – code for AKP supporters – who blamed it for Ergenekon, an alleged coup plot in which more than 80 hardline secularists, including former army officers, have been indicted. "Imaginary scenarios aim to bring down the reputation of the Turkish armed forces," Kosaner said, in the first public remarks on the saga by a senior commander. "All attacks on our ability to perform our duties are bound to disappear in the face of our resolve."
He also said EU-inspired laws were helping the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – regarded as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU.
"Laws that are amended as if there is no terrorism threat against our country prevent the security forces from fighting terrorism in a rapid and effective manner," he said. "If terrorists are threatening human rights, we need to reconsider the balance between rights and freedoms and take counter-measures."
Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based commentator on Turkish security issues, said Kosaner’s comments were partly aimed at reassuring his own officers.
"But there’s also speculation about what AKP will do – will it become more moderate or try again (to impose Islamism)," he said. "The military are giving them the message that they are still here and prepared to defend secularism.
"There is real frustration within the military at what they see as an assault by the AKP on Ataturk’s secular legacy and also what they consider to be the political motivations of the Ergenekon investigation. They think the aim isn’t to unearth the ‘deep state’ but to undermine the military as an institution."
By Guardian Unlimited (c) Copyright Guardian Newspapers 2008