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Deciphering retired admirals’ open letter in Turkey

An open letter by retired admirals critical of government policies has given Erdogan much-needed political ammunition amid an economic turmoil that has been eating into his popular support.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech following an evaluation meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on April 5, 2021. Erdogan accused dozens of retired admirals of eyeing a "political coup" by attacking his plans for a canal linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Erdogan's fury was directed at a letter published by 104 former admirals over the weekend urging him to abide by the terms of the 1936 Montreux Convention.

An open letter by 104 retired Turkish admirals criticizing a government project for a waterway parallel to the Bosporus — and the ensuing coup clamor in pro-government quarters — has raised the specter of a fresh political escalation in Turkey that might culminate in a purge of officers seen as disloyal to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In the open letter released late April 3 and addressed to the Turkish nation, the retired admirals expressed concern over Ankara’s intention to build an artificial waterway as an alternative to the Bosporus as well as suggestions that Ankara might scrap the 1936 Montreux Convention, which enshrines Turkey’s rights on controlling maritime traffic through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, the link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. The treaty has far-reaching international implications as it guarantees access to civilian ships in peacetime but restricts the passage of military vessels.

In the second part of the letter, the retired admirals said the army should stick to the Turkish republic’s founding principles and “the contemporary route” drawn by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. “Otherwise, the Republic of Turkey could face the risk and threat of events [fraught with] crisis and the biggest of dangers to its existence, the examples of which are seen in history,” they warned. The appeal — a tacit reference to secular values — was prompted by the recent leak of images of an on-duty admiral who was purportedly visiting the compounds of an Islamic order wearing religious headgear and a robe over his uniform.

Al-Monitor has learned that preparations for the open letter began about a month ago and that several drafts were shared on WhatsApp groups in the past two weeks to collect views and comments. The groups, however, were monitored by the intelligence services. Thus, the authorities were aware of the initiative and could have stopped it by subtly or openly warning the retired admirals. They chose not to do so, which suggests that the open letter was knowingly allowed to go ahead.

What followed was a vitriolic campaign led by government members and pro-government media, depicting the open letter as a veiled threat of a coup. A judicial investigation was launched into the incident, and 10 of the signatories were detained. All in all, the letter came as a godsend for Erdogan to revive his hallmark narrative about victimization and coup threats and consolidate his sagging popular support amid deepening economic turmoil.

Yet the tone and content of the declaration did resonate as militaristic and exceptionalist, evoking earlier military memorandums. A better wording with a more democratic tone could have generated broader public support.

As to what the row means, the most probable implication is that the alignment between the government and a hard-line secularist but anti-American, nationalist camp in the security bureaucracy is coming to an end.

The retired admirals appear to have been irked also by recent changes in laws regulating the appointments of military personnel. Under the amendments, introduced in early March, the authority to appoint and promote generals, admirals, and commissioned and noncommissioned officers was transferred from the General Staff and army commands to the Defense Ministry. The move has fueled widespread misgivings in military circles that the government is laying a legal ground to remold the army’s upper echelons to its own liking in August, when military promotions, assignments and retirements are decided. A crucial question in this context is whether the probe into the open letter will extend to on-duty generals and admirals. Such a move would affect the promotions in August as anyone detained would almost certainly be sent into retirement.

Another, though less likely, scenario is that the open letter was a sham fight to hijack the public debate, which has been dominated by the economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and Ankara’s foreign policy predicaments. Some of the admirals who signed the letter are known to belong to the aforementioned anti-American camp that has backed Erdogan’s combative attitude toward the West in the past several years. Yet Ankara has recently launched a quest to mend fences with Washington and the European Union. Moreover, mounting apprehension over the Turkish military’s secular character and promotion traditions would have outweighed other considerations by those retired admirals.

Intriguingly, in his first public comments on the issue on April 5, Erdogan’s tone was not as blistering as expected. Following his speech, the pro-government media seemed to lower the pitch of its campaign as well. Why would Erdogan use a rather measured language by his standards? Perhaps he realizes that the victimization rhetoric will have few buyers in his 19th year in power. Or that he could hardly divert public attention from the economic turmoil bruising the populace, coupled with a new peak in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet another reason could be the April 6 visit of top EU officials to Turkey following Ankara’s signals that it is willing to thaw the chill in bilateral relations. Ankara hopes that fence-mending will encourage European investments to revive the ailing Turkish economy. Thus, pressing economic concerns might have kept him from fueling fears of a fresh judicial onslaught on the military and stoking political tensions in the country.

Hundreds of military officers, including top commanders, were jailed in a series of controversial trials over alleged coup plots during the earlier years of Erdogan’s rule. The trials led to massive purges in the army, disrupting the line of succession in the command ranks. Government officials would later describe the trials as setups by followers of an Islamic cult led by US-based Fethullah Gulen, which Ankara has since designated as a terrorist group. The fallout between Erdogan and the Gulenists culminated in a coup attempt by Gulenist officers in 2016, which unleashed another wave of purges in the military. Could the probe into the open letter lead to similar purges? Could it turn into a sort of “road cleansing” to make the Turkish armed forces a “party army”? Is the government hoping for political gains from the crisis?

Two main indicators are likely to offer clues to those questions. The first is the media. An eventual flurry of headlines about a foiled coup plot, complete with leaks of conversations or messaging between retired or on-duty officers, would be a telling signal. The second indicator is whether the probe will expand to on-duty generals and admirals. The detention of on-duty officers would be a signal that Erdogan will be using the controversy for political ends to tighten his grip on power.

Separately, the connotations of the controversy are stoking concern of even further polarization in Turkey along fundamental fault lines such as secularism vs. Islam or Ataturk’s legacy vs. Erdogan’s vision. Turkey appears to be passing through a twilight zone with potentially momentous tremors.

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