Turkey’s vocal opposition media and political parties allege that Turkey's Navy and Air Force have been weakened because of recent resignations by top commanders and a spate of arrests of ranking military officials. The Turkish government and the general staff have vehemently denied that the armed forces have been damaged, and they insist that Turkish security is not in jeopardy. Turkey boasts of having the second-largest military in the NATO alliance, after the United States.
The latest twist was the resignation of Navy Fleet Commander Adm. Nusret Guner on late January. The commander was reportedly uneasy that many of his fellow officers had been jailed, following a series of allegations over the past few years that range from a military coup plot to membership in terrorist groups aimed at destroying Turkey. Guner was up for promotion to become the new commander of the Navy this August.
With Guner's departure, the Navy has no admirals other than Navy Commander Adm. Ugur Yigit, who comes up for retirement in August. Government and military sources say a vice admiral will be promoted to the rank of admiral, and then named commander of the Navy.
The Navy's problems aren't limited to jailed officers. Navy War Fleet Commander Rear Adm. Ahmet Iskender Yildirim, who has been implicated in the “spying and blackmail” trial of military personnel in the Aegean port city of Izmir, can't leave the country to head his fleet because of court orders. In a court ruling last September, the read admiral was ordered not to leave the country. As a result, he's missed several important military exercises held with fellow NATO navies in international waters.
Dozens of ranking Turkish officers are being tried in three court cases across the country. In a written reply last week to a parliamentary inquiry, Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz disclosed that 404 military personnel — including 64 generals and admirals and 273 officers — face trial. He said 207 people, including 58 generals and admirals and 140 officers, are in custody.
The largest trial to catch international attention is the Ergenekon case in Istanbul. Hundreds of suspects — including retired and active military officers, academics, police officials and journalists — face trial on charges of setting up a terrorist organization to topple the government. The court has held more than 200 hearings since the trial started in 2008, and a verdict may come later this year.
Another key trial is the “sledgehammer” case, involving military commanders who allegedly plotted to overthrow the government during a 2003 meeting in Istanbul. The defendants include retired generals and admirals. That trial started in 2010 and lasted two years, and is now under appeal. Last Sept. 21, the Istanbul Heavy Penal Court sentenced 300 of the 365 suspects to prison terms and acquited 34 defendants.
A spying and blackmail trial will start in Izmir on Apr. 16, with 357 defendants facing charges of prostitution and of obtaining and storing secret military information. The court has jailed 85 suspects, who include Air Force and Navy officers.
The arrests have raised questions in the media about the state of affairs in the Air Force. Saygi Ozturk, of the opposition daily Sozcu, claims that 15 percent of fighter pilots have requested early retirement since the start of the year. Fifty-five Air Force officers are currently in jail — including Air Force Gen. Bilgin Balanli, who has been jailed in connection with the “sledgehammer” trial, as well as two lieutenant generals, six major generals, three brigadier generals and more than a dozen pilot colonels.
Imprisoned Air Force officers sent a joint letter to opposition newspapers on Feb. 2, arguing that the arrests and trials have undermined the fighting force and seriously affected its capabilities, particularly as fighter jets are flown by officers. The letter said the arrests and trials have demoralized military personnel.
They said that the Turkish Air Force has become a leading global fighting power, and they said the state should be careful to protect this force, whereas recent developments have been extremely counterproductive. They also claimed that a campaign of disinformation has sought to damage the reputation of the country's military forces. “We the officers waited with patience for justice to prevail, but this has not been the case,” the letter lamented. They also said that 15 percent of the pilots have requested retirement since the start of the year, and that these pilots were senior, experienced personnel. “Their departure would lead to disaster,” the letter warned.
The government and the General Staff Headquarters have responded that there is no defiency in the command structure of the Armed Forces.
Returning from a trip to Central Europe on Feb. 6, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that military resignations and retirements are routine this time of year and will not weaken the forces.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, a spokesman for the Turkish governmant, told Sky 360 TV on Feb. 7 that he does not believe the resignations will damage the command structure, but he added “the fact that some people who have worked in high places in the Armed Forces are being accused had caused psychological worries, fear and deep sorrow among some military personnel. It would surely create low morale.”
But he stressed that the government has nothing to do with the court cases or the charges brought against the commanders. In fact, Erdogan recently told reporters he opposes the extended periods of custody for commanders awaiting terrorism charges.
While the government has tried to keep a brave face, cabinet members are seriously concerned that long detention periods of military officials and accusations against the military are starting to take their toll on the Armed Forces.
İlnur Cevik served as editor-in-chief of the Turkish Daily News between 1983 and 2004, which later became the Hurriyet Daily News. He also published the daily The New Anatolian.