A War of Nerves in Turkey


May 12, 2007

With the political standoff surrounding the selection of a new president intensifying, Turkey is entering a critical period that could have a profound effect on both the country's internal evolution as a secular democracy and its relations with the West. The presidential candidacy of the moderate Islamist Abdullah Gul, currently the foreign minister, has been rejected by Turkey's highest court, and the parliamentary election scheduled for November has been moved up to July in an effort to break the political impasse. But these steps are unlikely to defuse tensions between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government and Turkey's military, which sees itself as the guardian of the country's secular state.

On the contrary, these tensions have heightened as a result of changes in the top echelons of the Turkish armed forces, particularly the replacement last August of Gen. Hilmi Ozkok as chief of the Turkish General Staff. Ozkok was a moderate who maintained a low profile and sought to develop good working relations with Erdogan, By contrast, his successor, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, is a strong secularist who has been far more outspoken in asserting the military's views.

In a speech last October to the Military Academies Command in Istanbul, Buyukanit publicly warned that Turkey faced a serious threat from "fundamentalism." Many viewed that charge as a direct criticism of Erdogan and the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Tensions reached a boiling point May 12 when the General Staff issued a statement stressing that "the Turkish armed forces maintain their sound determination to carry out their duties stemming from laws to protect the unchangeable character of the Republic of Turkey. Their loyalty to this determination is absolute."

That toughly worded statement was seen as a veiled but unmistakable warning that the military was prepared to intervene if Gul's election as president resulted in an effort by the Erdogan government to push its Islamic agenda or take measures that threatened the secular nature of the Turkish political order.

The statement was particularly significant because the Turkish armed forces have intervened in the political process four times since 1960 — the last time in 1997 when they forced the resignation of the Islamist-oriented government of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in what has come to be known as a "post-modern coup."

These tensions have been compounded by differences between Buyukanit and Erdogan over Turkey's struggle against Kurdish separatists led by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which the military regards as a serious threat to Turkey's territorial integrity. PKK guerrilla attacks have resulted in more than 35,000 deaths since 1984. Since January 2006, PKK cross-border raids from safe havens in northern Iraq have led to roughly 600 deaths, many of them members of the Turkish security forces.

As Turkish casualties have mounted, the military's patience has begun to wear thin and Erdogan has come under growing internal pressure to take unilateral military action against the PKK.

At a news conference on April 12, Buyukanit bluntly argued that a military operation in Iraq aimed at eliminating the PKK threat was "necessary" and "would be useful." His remarks reflect the military's growing frustration with the lack of concrete American support, and seemed designed to intensify pressure on Erdogan to authorize unilateral cross-border operations against PKK bases in northern Iraq.

But Turkey's Kurdish problem cannot be solved by military means. It can be resolved only by dialogue between the Turkish government and the leaders of the Iraqi Kurds, as well as by economic and political measures designed to improve the living conditions and political rights of Turkey's Kurdish population.

Erdogan's government seems to recognize this, and has recently shown an interest in initiating a dialogue with Iraqi Kurdish leaders. The Turkish military, however, oppose a high-level dialogue with Iraqi Kurds on the grounds that the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK), headed by Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, support the PKK materially and politically.

Given the key role the military plays in Turkish politics, especially on sensitive national security issues, Erdogan will need the military's support — or at least its acquiescence — for any initiative to succeed. Thus, he may be reluctant to proceed with a dialogue with the Iraqi Kurds at a time when tensions with the military are running high over the influence of Islamists in Turkish politics.

Erdogan has moved to defuse the current crisis by declaring that he will seek early elections as well as sweeping constitutional changes that would make the president popularly elected, rather than elected by Parliament. This would give the president greater legitimacy and independence, while reducing fears that he might be tempted to follow the agenda of a particular party.

At the same time, if Turkey is to become a mature, modern democracy, the military will need to accept a less intrusive role in Turkish politics. While a number of steps have been taken in this direction during the past several years, the current crisis underscores that Turkey still faces a long road before that goal is fully realized.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the corporate chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

This op-ed originally appeared on www.project-syndicate.org.

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