Turkish arrests of senior military officers last year could trigger ‘unpredictable reaction’, US embassy cable warned
U.S. diplomats in Turkey feared that a wave of arrests of senior military officers last year over an alleged plot to topple the country’s Islamist-rooted government could trigger an “unpredictable military reaction”, according to a leaked diplomatic cable.
About 200 active and retired Turkish military officers, including former chiefs of the air force and dozens of generals and admirals, went on trial in December on charges of “attempting to topple the government by force” as part of a plot dubbed Sledgehammer.
Turkey’s military, which has overthrown three governments since 1960 and put pressure on an Islamist—led government to step down in 1997, has denied such a plot existed. But a cable sent from the US embassy in Ankara after the arrests last February reveals fears of a threat to Turkish democracy.
“Some knowledgeable embassy officers see this latest step as a more serious provocation that could trigger some type of unpredictable military reaction. We will see,” stated the cable, which was classified as confidential by the-then U.S. ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffrey.
The alleged plot, which first surfaced after a Turkish newspaper said it had discovered documents detailing plans to bomb two Istanbul mosques and provoke Greece into shooting down a Turkish plane, was similar to -- and said to be linked with -- a larger alleged conspiracy by secular civilian and military nationalists, dubbed Ergenekon.
Senior Turkish military figures have consistently claimed coups are a thing of the past in the country, but the U.S. cable took a different view. “There is some fire behind the smoke,” it stated at one point, as it sought to set out “the facts on this whole Ergenekon set of events.
“The military obviously has plans to intervene if necessary in political affairs and can cite the 1982 constitution, endorsed by the population per referendum, which gives the military a key role in ‘overseeing’ democratic governments’ adherence to Ataturkist principles -- largely defined as by the military and its friends in the bureaucracy and judiciary.” The cable noted that the 47 retired and active-duty military officers detained on 22 February included Ergin Saygun, a former deputy chief of Turkish’s defence forces, who was “very well-known to the U.S.” as a co-ordinator with the Americans on anti-terrorism issues for many years. He had accompanied the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on a visit to Washington in November 2007.
It suggested the investigations were related to electoral politics -- “albeit of a below the belt, contact sport variety” -- and an attempt by Erdogan to repeat previous electoral successes, when he was said to have “played off the military’s counter-productive threats”.
But it added: “All this is exacerbated by the thuggish authoritarian behaviour of the police and judiciary (reflecting prevailing tendencies in this society, including in the military). Anyone even suspected of ‘having information’ is hauled before the police and humiliated before the press.” © Guardian News & Media 2011