Civil-Military Relations on Edge After Report Over Anxiety In Army

Turkish Army Chief Gen. Hulusi Akar (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish Army Chief Gen. Hulusi Akar (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The failed coup attempt led to a strong conviction among many Turks that the military is no longer a threat, or not a formidable political actor as once it was. But for government’s most loyal core supporters and elites, that perception seems to be short-lived and a wishful thinking, not yet a full-fledged reality.

Hurriyet’s bewildering top story at the weekend has generated a powerful political storm, with both supporters and opponents of the government reacting to the report of lingering anxiety among top brass of the army over government decision to lift headscarf ban in the military and enduring browbeating of the army on other issues.

The revelation of deep resentment within the army was made public after leaks by anonymous sources from the high echelons of the command chain in Turkey’s battered General Staff in Ankara. So powerful the backlash unleashed by “High Command Uneasy” story was that it prompted a hasty meeting between the Turkish Army Chief and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before a visit to Pakistan, and led prosecutors to launch an investigation into the newspaper report.

“This story bothered the Turkish Armed Forces, just as it has bothered us,” President Erdogan told media members at a press conference along with Gen. Hulusi Akar, chief of General Staff. “Nobody has the right to put those in the state against each other, everyone should know their place. You are being disrespectful… Whoever is trying to pit us against each other will pay a heavy price,” Reuters quoted the president as saying before his departure to Pakistan.

Government-loyal media was quick to portray the story over anxiety in the army as formation of a nascent, new junta within the military for another attempt to topple the government, and to “reverse post-coup gains of the civilian government.” Hurriyet has drawn most of the ire and its editor-in-chief Sedat Ergin immediately became victim of the government’s conspicuous rage as Dogan media sacked him.

Though it has tailored its editorial in line with whims and agenda of the government over the past year, Hurriyet was unable to get unscathed from the eruption of latest furor. It has found itself at the heart of ensuing debates and government’s cross-chair.

“It didn’t cross our mind that this headline could be perceived this way. Such an intention is out of the question. The headline can be seen as an editorial mistake. We are sorry for that,” Reuters quoted a statement from the Hurriyet in what seems an apology to ward off any government action.

But it did little to sooth President Erdogan’s fury as he vowed that the newspaper will pay heavy price. Neither the military was content with the ramifications of the story and lashed out at Hurriyet for the structure and headline of the report. It says the newspaper distorted the story, claiming that the headline was misleading as there was no expression such as “the military is restless [uneasy].”

“Reflecting the issue as if there were tension between the TSK [Turkish Armed Forces] and the government is simply distorting it,” the military said in a statement.

Hande Firat, Hurriyet’s Ankara Bureau Chief whose FaceTime connection with the president during coup attempt steeped in the national memory wrote the report which reflects the military’s palpable uneasiness over a number of issues.

High-level source or sources, some believe it was Army Chief Gen. Hulusi Akar, clarified the position of the military leadership on some controversial issues. The army says the decision to lift headscarf ban was taken by the government without seeking opinion of the military.

Core of the army’s smoldering resentment emanates from its own perception in the public, arguing that the military has become unjustly a target of sustained criticism at a time of great ordeal to combat with terrorist groups on multiple fronts.

As the military is occupied with life-and-death battles against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Islamic State, public treatment of it inflicts damage at institutional level, the Hurriyet report says. The interview is interpreted as a defense of the position of General Staff and the army chief whose cordial partnership with President Erdogan conspicuously seems to be source of internal uneasiness.

For critics, the timing of the report aims to boost fragile standing of the government ahead of critical April referendum about presidential system as number of naysayers appear prevalent at current polls. This conviction is sharpened by the belief that it was a false flag operation to show the government as victim of another potential army threat, existence of a new junta, which is growingly unhappy with the way the army is led and treated. The victimhood narrative is what the government desperately needs to bolster its poor standing at the moment, main Republican People’s Party (CHP) has said.

But for supporters of government, it was a genuine threat that needs to be seriously taken into consideration. For proponents of this line of thought called for a robust response to the military leadership, to launch an investigation to unearth the junta. And punishment of Hurriyet was among the top demands in place.

In Hurriyet report, the General Staff defended abroad visits of army chief along with the president, his condolence messages to pro-government journalists who recently passed away.

The General Staff expressed dismay over attempts to politicize the army and to drag the military personnel into day-to-day politics. It also defended army chief’s visit to a disputed islet in Aegean Sea. Bulk of the interview revolved around controversy involving the army chief’s conducts and relationship with the government. The military also rejected media reports about villa purchase of Gen. Akar along with another general close to the government in the western province of Sakarya.

Some interpreted the Hurriyet report as a personal effort by the army chief to polish his tarnished image within the military over his dismal handling of the both coup and post-coup process. The military is now fractured and divided as ever after massive purges and brutal treatment of detained generals in prisons.

Despite the temptation on both government and military side to contain any fallout from the report, it reveals emerging cracks on a shaky relationship tested by unabated purge and anti-military discourse among pro-government media outlets. 

This piece was originally published on The Globe Post