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With Army in Disarray, a Pillar of Modern Turkey Lies Broken | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A man lies in front of a Turkish tank at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. Reuters

Istanbul-As a rebel faction of Turkey’s military began a violent attempt to topple the elected government, the country’s top officer, Gen. Hulusi Akar, was held at gunpoint in his office in the capital and told for the first time about what was happening.

“Sir, the operation is starting,” a coup-plotting officer said, according to General Akar in testimony that was leaked to the Turkish news media and verified by a senior Turkish official as authentic. “We will round up people, battalions. Brigades are on their way. You will see a bit later.”

General Akar replied: “What the hell are you saying? What operation? Are you a maniac? Never!”

The plotters hoped to secure General Akar’s participation in the conspiracy, but his refusal was decisive in ensuring this coup attempt would fail — unlike those in Turkey in 1960, 1971 and 1980, which were supported up and down the chain of command.

Now, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wages a widespread purge, jailing and suspending tens of thousands of state employees, the military that has long served as a unifying force for the country is deeply divided, diminished and discredited. Nearly half of the top generals and admirals have been jailed or dismissed and thousands of foot soldiers charged. More than 1,500 officers were dishonorably discharged this week in advance of a meeting of the Supreme Military Council in Ankara on Thursday, where leaders were expected to consider a broader restructuring of the military.

But late Thursday night Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, spoke only briefly, saying that several top generals, including General Akar, would keep their jobs.

Meanwhile, images on social media of conscripts’ being slapped and taunted have shocked a country that venerates the common soldier, as have allegations by Amnesty International that military detainees have been tortured.

“With its main pillar, the military, broken, the Turkish state will no longer be able to check a divided society or effectively counter security threats,” said Halil Karaveli, a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program.

That is a blow, not only to the country, but also to NATO, of which Turkey is a member. The Turkish military is a crucial ally in fighting terrorism, reining in ISIS, and in controlling the migrant tide that has overwhelmed Europe. Chaos within the military symbolizes not only its waning power in the country — and the rise of the police, which Erdogan built up as a bulwark to the military — but also its diminished reliability as a partner to the West.

But it is perhaps the psychological blow that is greatest for a nation that is so badly splintered. Religious and secular, rich and poor, every man served in the Turkish military, and to all, the urban elite and pious poor, it was a symbol of Turkish identity.

Alp Konak, who works at a hotel in Istanbul, explained how even within his family, the military was able to bridge differences between brothers. He said he was liberal, but his brother was very religious. “But the time we all got really close and came together was after we completed our military service, because we were all doing it for the future of our country,” he said. “We all believed in it.”

Now, both supporters and opponents of Turkey’s divisive president, Erdogan, feel deceived. They thought the military had been depoliticized, stripped of those who would undermine democracy to wield the power of force.
But they were wrong.

“That is what is so devastating about the coup attempt, the treachery involved,” said Soner Sencan, 31, a hairdresser in Istanbul, who said his closest friends were ones he met in the military. “Now no one will trust each other, and the most powerful, unified force of this country is broken.”

Within the diminished military ranks, the officer corps is badly split, and among the rank and file and their families, there is a sense of betrayal. Many soldiers seem to have been dragged into the plot by being told they were conducting an exercise.

“These kids did not know anything,” said Nazli Tanburaci Altac, a lawyer in Ankara, the capital, who is representing conscripts who were detained. Speaking of her clients, she said: “The only thing they say is, ‘Those we considered as brothers, fathers, threw us in to the fire and went away. They told us there was an exercise.’ ”

The Turkish military, the second largest in NATO, has a budget of roughly $20 billion a year and an army of more than 500,000 soldiers. The authorities said this week that 1.5 percent of the army, or about 8,600 soldiers, participated in the coup attempt, although it was not clear how many willingly took part.

The New York Times