They are five former Turkish Senior Officers, from Armed Forces, Air Forces and Navy, who served at SHAPE and NATO Headquarters in Belgium and who were purged after the attempted coup on 15 July last year.
All of them were in Belgium during the 15th July events. They did not return to Turkey, fearing bad-treatment, arrest and torture. Soft-spoken and weary when speaking about the struggles to adjust to their new lives, they are becoming immediately passionate when talking about the Turkish armed forces which they had served for and dedicated many years of their lives. “The Turkish Armed Forces was the most reliable institution in the country and it has had the best educated people”, they are saying, and the tone is instantly moving from nostalgic to prideful. But the tone is shifting again-to a down one- when they are talking about their brothers-in-arms – who are currently innocently and unlawfully purged, detained or jailed in Turkey. “We are doing this for them, and we are publicly talking for them” they are underlying.
This interview is based on an extensive, full of inquiries and recorded conversation with those five former Turkish Senior Officers.
Vocal Europe: How do you see the impact of the attempted coup on Turkish Armed Forces? Do you percieve a decline in Turkey’s defence capabilities due to ongoing purge in the military?
Many of the Turkish institutions – the police force, the legal institutions, they have always been politicized to a certain degree. But the Turkish Armed Forces, the one I have known for many years, has never been under direct political control, it had always been neutral; the promotions, the assignments were never been politicized – maybe at the top level were always politicized, but for the whole military that has never been the case. For example, I have never felt – for more than 20 years- that any kind of political influence played a role in military assignments after the purge. But now the Turkish Armed Forces is at great risk, as many changes occurred after the coup attempt. There is the big risk of politicization and this is clearly a significant long term risk that the Turkish military is facing.
The Turkish government, a couple of weeks after 15th of July, intervened in Syria just to show to the public that “we have a strong military” and to keep this narrative. The result was loss of lives of comrades and military equipment. Even the Operation Euphrates Shield was captured as a great success at pro-Erdogan media, with Erdoganist generals commanding the whole operation without a real understanding of strategic context and operational planning; it was a mess in the end. Sadly, this massive purge will have long term implications for the Turkish military, as the gap in human resources cannot be fixed on short term. Can you imagine a NATO army waiting for orders where it does not have people with required experience in the command chain?
By purging such massive numbers of experienced military personnel, you only make the country’s defense really vulnerable. In the end, it’s all about numbers: since 15 July, thousands of military people from army, air force and navy were purged. Those were well educated, experienced military planners, pilots, sailors. As a clear snapshot almost 700 pilots were purged so far, if you include another 200-300 pilots who are not currently flying it makes as much as 1000 purged pilots. What is left… 200-300 pilots and it might be an exaggeration.
The quick-fix solution of the government was to provide exaggerated salaries to previously retired combat pilots, whom are called to replace the purged ones; but these people had retired 5-6 years ago and they lost their abilities and experience. Also, it is worth mentioning that those retired pilots were mostly the ones that lost their interest in military and also the ones that do not fit to health requirements to fly a combat aircraft. Just to remember that as a result of those massive purges, Turkish General Staff had to ask the US’ help for air support even in small size operations in Syria. This means extra burden on Allies.
Another side effect of this unprecedented massive purge is the current lack of trust against command chain in the Armed Forces as well. This is so clear at lower level ranks, as they always question now the personal agenda of the commander; basically, people are afraid to do even daily routines of military practice and just try to save their skin. Namely, the trust between people, the whole experience that Armed Forces had gained in times of crisis, these all are gone.
“To me, the Turkish Army is now like a body with some parts left and some parts chopped off –one may think that it is a living body but no, it is not alive, and it is simply like a dead man walking. After these purges, there are no “brothers in arms” in Turkish military, as nobody trusts anybody.”
There is a psychological aspect of the purges and it concerns the people’s reactions: they know the stories of their comrades called to the quarters and then taken by the police…Therefore, naturally, their reaction is not to do anything : if you don’t do anything, you can get yourself into trouble: some trouble, but not a lot of trouble; but if you do something, you may get a lot of trouble –and this applies not only to army, but to a lot of institutions in Turkey right now.
Vocal Europe: It is heard that “beyond-door-discussions” about coup had taken place in many circles both in Turkey and abroad starting even from early 2016. Did you not hear anything in NATO’s circles about the coming attempt?
We never heard in advance about the coup attempt and that was never discussed in NATO circles and even among the Turkish officers serving at NATO Headquarters. Frankly, the coup was shocking for all of us, as we never expected it. Let me be clear on one issue: most Turkish officers share the opinion that in real democracies there is no place for a coup against an elected government. We believe that each and every single coup that Turkey experienced since its foundation did nothing but drawing Turkey at least 10 years back in terms of its democratic achievements. Although we may not know all of the military personnel arrested or dismissed by the government, most of those arrested we know would have never thought of organizing a coup against the country’s political authority.
It should be said as well that there was a massive resentment among the public and the armed forces against President Erdogan due to the failing of the Kurdish peace process and particularly due to the developments that happened afterwards. Lots of people have died, because of the mistakes committed by the government in handling the Kurdish issue. Those purged generals and offices had liberal visions to solve long-awaited Kurdish issue, they believed in democratic ways for solving this issue rather than using military might.
“I personally remember one of the jailed and tortured top brass begging Army Command to stop shelling Sur in Diyarbakir because of civilian losses. Sadly, pro-Erdogan generals commanded those operations in Diyarbakir and Sirnak.”
For us, it was very obvious that the politicians made enormous mistakes and it was the nation that paid a heavy price in loosing human lives. Nevertheless, even at that time, when we were so disappointed by President Erdogan’s hard practices, there was no such thinking among us that we should organize a coup against the government. This had never been an option!
Factually speaking and only by checking the overall number of purged generals and officers –more than 8000 people – it is certain that if all those people would have really organized the coup, the coup would have been successful.
“If the purged generals – almost half of the total number of Turkish generals – 160 out of 324 – would have been involved in the planning, command and execution of the coup, they would have succeeded.”
On the other hand, it is worth mentioning that before the coup, there were some articles and posts on social media, through which pro-government people were calling for a coup where President Erdogan could get the full control of the Armed Forces. Furthermore, two weeks before the coup, some social media accounts that are now gone were referring to a coup in making. Some of these social media accounts were posting contents like “We will see all Turkish Armed Forces and Commander in Chief (Erdogan) praying on a Friday all together…We will see those days… Be ready for the change’’. It is very clear that the coup was not known to us but it was certainly known to President Erdogan’s close circles.
Vocal Europe: What would you tell us about the trials of suspects who are accused of the attempted coup in July last year? Many military suspects underline severe ill-treatment and the fact that their testimony were taken under torture. Why are the trials of the military personnel accused of staging the coup not broadcasted and international observers not allowed to monitoring the trial process?
The trials are not broadcasted and no international monitoring is allowed for a simple reason: President Erdogan does not want the realities of the 15 July to come up to the surface, and to be acknowledged by the public opinion. But this question – why the trials of the military personnel accused of staging the coup are not broadcasted and international observers are not allowed to monitor them? – should be put to the Turkish government by the EU representatives, by the Western countries’ officilas. Ultimately, these trials could be considered the biggest event in Turkey’s republican history: a coup attempted to change a democratic regime by overthrowing the government; so the logical consequence would have been to allow the media to broadcast the trials and the international observers to monitor them.
Also, aside the intimidating atmosphere outside the courtroom where people threw rope nooses and chanted slogans in favor of death penalty, once the generals and many senior officers began to talk, and said exactly what happened during the night of the coup, I can tell you that even the pro-government judges started to consider that what these guys were telling might be true. I think that even the staunch supporters of President Erdogan have started to have some doubts that challenge the official narrative of the government regarding the coup. Therefore, it is unimaginable to expect that the government could allow international observers to the trials and let the trials be broadcasted. If the government would believe that only 1 percent of the broadcasting of the trials could be used for propaganda, all the TV stations would be allowed to broadcast them live.
Interesting to note here that there was a special protocol to give the city governors the power to request military support to police in case of public disorder. This specific protocol was canceled by Erdogan himself because it was not democratic. Interestingly this protocol was put into service again just one month before 15th of July. Based on my contacts with my former colleagues, I know that they were told to leave barracks because of a terrorist threat; they were given the impression that it was an exercise of this specific protocol, thus lots of units left the barracks that night.
In that sense, time also give you a personal story which also challenges the official narrative used by the government. In the night of the coup, while I was watching the news covering the coup attempt, I called a friend of mine, a Senior officer. I was trying to grasp what was happening. My friend said to me that he was told to participate to a military exercise for police support protocol and when he had been out there for the exercise, civilians who gathered there started to run against him. That was what he passed over me through a short phone conversation in the night of July 15. I have not heard from him since then. His wife has not so far found out what happened to him, too. Probably he was killed by Erdogan’s armed militia that night.
Another crucial challenge to the official narrative used by the government for the coup is represented by the recent testimonies of the suspected generals.
“Many of them stressed one key point, namely the fact that they were told that a huge scale terror attack was expected at Ankara and Istanbul military headquarters. The call requested them to mobilize their forces and come to the headquarters to deter the potential terror attack.”
Referring to the ill treatment and torture, if you look at the media and footages taken after the coup, there is already enough evidences for that. On the other hand, this is also difficult to prove, as there is almost impossible to go in the prisons and check how these people have been treated. But we have many sad, dramatic stories about fellows, friends who were tortured or suffered ill-treatments, and the words cannot encompass the tragedy they have been living.
Let’s take a well-known example, that of the Lieutenant – Colonel, Levent Türkkan, the chief aide to Turkey’s Chief of Staff, who had to face tremendous torture: his hands were broken, his head was slashed.
“So, it was obvious that he was forced to say, in his testimony, that he was a Gülenist and a coup plotter. More, during the trial, he declared that his initial testimony was taken under heavy torture. Indeed, the same applied to many others who were forced to sign pre-written testimonies.”
In fact, the post-coup period is also very interesting to trace some of the inconsistencies regarding the official narrative of the government. Examining how the authorities handled the post-coup period, what one can see is ongoing arrests and dismissals but not hard proofs on what really happened on 15 July. For instance, the Parliament’s Coup Investigation Commission neither investigated how people were killed nor where the bullets came from. Instead, the commission invited for hearings the relatives of those who lost their lives on July 15. Very oddly, the key figures of the July 15 events, namely the chief of National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan; the Chief of General Staff, Hulusi Akar; and the Commander of Turkish Special Forces, Zekai Aksakkali were not called to testify before the members of the parliamentary commission.
Vocal Europe: Do you think that NATO will take on responsibility to uncover how exactly the coup was conducted and by whom?
We do not think that NATO will directly and formally conduct an investigation on how and by whom the coup was organized. What NATO can do and has been doing so far is to assess what is the coup’s impact on NATO’s defense capabilities.
As a matter of fact, for NATO this is matter of a sovereign country. Individually, people from NATO understand our situation, the tragic situation of our fellows in Turkey…However, it seems that a NATO member, namely Turkey, does not value anymore the principles and the values on which the North Atlantic Alliance was established. Nevertheless, NATO could and should speak in the name of principles. Hence, NATO can remind the Turkish authorities that, though it is a military alliance, it also promotes the democratic values. In addition, NATO could also remind Turkey that the military personnel cannot be subject of torture or of any cruel or degrading treatment not even in the state of war or emergency.
We suffered big injustices and we often get emotional and say “NATO, and the EU should cut off the ties with Turkey”. But we also think that the logic, pragmatism and smart thinking should prevail and in this regard we believe that the channels of communications of the EU and NATO with Turkey must stay open and we have an illustrative example in this regard: in January, some EU representatives went to a prison in Turkey, and for a month, before their visit, our friends there had a better treatment. The lines of communications should stay open-cutting off the ties would only increase President Erdogan’s popularity – but, at the same time, the talks on principle must not stop.
Vocal Europe: The Turkish government dismissed and fired many members of Turkish armed forces who used to work at NATO Headquarters with the charges that they were members of Gülen Movement that is held responsible by President Erdogan for the attempted coup. Why do you think that is the reason of your purge?
Officer A: I think the main cause of my purge is the fact that I have extensive education with Western background.
Officer B: I think I was dismissed because I was known as someone who is not in line with President Erdogan’s mindset. We do not talk politics in the Armed Forces in general, but I told several friends that I did not agree with some aspects of the policies pursued by the government. This might be the reason. Also, as one of the narratives of the pro-government media was that NATO was behind the coup, my position at NATO might be a reason in itself, too. Finally, I have also a degree obtained in the US and another strong narrative was that US is behind the coup.
Officer C: I have also extensive education in the Western countries and the United States and I also told friends, on several occasions, that I do not favor for President Erdogan’s policies.
Officer D: I think I was purged because I am liberal and Wstern-minded. But the main reason is, I think, that I am totally against Erdoganist mindset. This was enough reasoning for Erdoganists from the Turkish Armed Forces to purge me out.
Officer E: While purging such huge numbers of military, the government needed a mechanism, so they invented 16 criteria, to create the pool of purged officers. To this date, I was never informed why I was purged, and the legal frame is still missing.
NOTE:. Allegedly, one of the 16 criteria on the basis of which many military personnel were purged was if they had (a) first- or second- degree relatives who had bank account(s) at Bank Asya, a major Turkish bank that was linked to Gülen Movement and was closed by the government.
Officer A: Accusing someone as a Gülenist is a useful sticker for President Erdogan to purge anyone he wants. Some people were forced to point someone as a Gülenist without any foundation. Therefore, many were purged based on the espionage that the officers were forced to do.
Officer C: if you are liberal, if you are Western minded, and/or you do not support President Erdogan, you are definitely on the list. There is no escape.
Vocal Europe: Can you give us a sense of different groups in Turkish Armed Forces? What kind of social, political, and religious groups are represented in Turkish military and their impact on the coup? Do you think that there are so many hidden Gülenists in Turkish Armed Forces? If yes, why do these people need to hide themselves?
Officer A: When the Turkish nation was founded by Ataturk, a special role was given to the Army. Military service is obligatory in Turkey where you can see all segments of the nation behind the barracks. But at the same time, through military service, people were educated in a more Western way, as the Army was a vehicle of Westernization of Turkey. However, in Turkish military we always try to educate them in a western way. During my entire career, I have always come across all the patterns of Turkish nation in the military. People coming from rural areas, from cities, some being educated, some from middle-class families…we can definitely say that Turkey’s Army has always been a snapshot of Turkish nation. If there are leftists in the society, then there are definitely leftists in the Army as well. If you have rightists or Islamists in the society, you have them in the army, too.
However, despite all the democratic achievements since the establishment of the republic it is still a matter of concern for military personnel to reveal who they really are. They are still afraid of telling about “real themselves”, due to official lines, which military personnel have to be in line with.
As a commander, I have always respected the officers under my command. But we have to know whether officers act within the chain of command or they have different motivations for their actions. We have to know about that. What I wish to emphasize is that we have always been monitored in Turkish Army, particularly the officers, the senior officers and staff officers.
“I can tell that Army knows me better than I know myself. It has been impossible to hide a different source of motivation or affiliation in Turkish military.”
In that respect, I would like to refer to a very key change by the governing party regarding your question. There were mechanisms until 2005 to find out any “unfit” and take them out of the system, out of the Armed Forces. I am not arguing whether this was democratic or not but that was what it was back then. Interestingly, it was Erdogan who stopped this process in early 2007.
In armed forces, no one would tell you: “I am a leftist, an Islamist, a Gülenist” or other affiliation. But you have friends and you know their families, you know how they live… Hence, I do not think that the ratio of Gülenists in the armed forces is as large as the government argues. If this is true, the coup would have been a successful one. It is nonsense to say: “this percentage of military personnel is Gülenist”.
Officer B: Many representative of the government have shared various numbers like 20, 30, 40, and even 60 percent to identify the number of Gülenists in the armed forces. Where did they get these numbers from? How did they calculate these numbers?
“If there were so many Gülenists in the armed forces, why then they did not take any measure before the coup? I think that these figures were presented in order to rationalize, and justify the purges.”
Contrary to that, the Chief of Staff said that 1,5 percent of Turkish armed forces engaged in the coup, where majority of them were conscript soldiers. There is a big discrepancy between what is and what really happened.
Officer C: I am very doubtful about all this kind of categorization. Firstly, what is a Gülenist? There is not an identifiable variable in this regard.
“What is a Gülenist and how do you define a Gülenist are very problematic issues to deal with. Is President Erdogan’s son in law a Gülenist? Although he graduated from a Gülenist school, he is now one of the merciless enemies of Gülenists. Or, is the President a Gülenist? He is someone who had previously breakfast with Gülen.”
Hence, this kind of categorization does not stand. For instance, over the last 4-5 years, the young cadets in the Military Academy were motivated to learn Chinese and Russian with the aim to have strategic insight capable officers. Can these people, who learned Chinese and Russian, be categorized as pro-Chinese or pro-Russian? Hence, this kind of categorization like Gülenist or pro-Russian is in my opinion, non-scientific: it does not have logic and does not make sense. The Army has had one type of officer: devoted to the nation and to the principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Officer D: Nobody can tell you the numbers of the followers of any fractions in Armed Forces. There is no classification like that. Specifically, if there are followers of Gülen in Armed Forces, in my opinion, they would be in lower rankings, since President Erdogan himself intervened in the process in 2007. In that regard, I do not think that there are Gülenists among the Turkish senior officers or generals.
Officer E: Just to support what have been said before, I would like to say that Turkish Armed Forces has been always the best team of the republic and has always been secular. Naming a group in a secular armed forces as being members of any clique or Gülenists has been so horrible for the secularist officers.
Vocal Europe: Will Turkish Army recover from the trauma of the coup? Is it falling under full control of President Erdogan and the AK Party? If yes, what will be the consequences?
We do not see any effort to bring Turkish military out of the trauma of the coup. Right after 15 July, we have seen crucial changes within the conduct of commanders-in-chief of armed forces who represent Turkish military. Now, we have a Chief of Staff frequently worshiping in the mosque right next to President Erdogan. This has never ever been the case in Turkish armed forces before. More importantly, this has become kind of a habit for the Chief of Staff, as he often takes the floor and holds political speeches, and even attends to political rallies with President Erdogan in favor of the governing party.
Another crucial development is that all those AK Party linked Islamists who were isolated from military many years ago are now being re-nominated to critical positions in the Army. Many of these people are now in charge of selection committees of armed forces where newcomers are asked about whether they pray five times a day and they are even asked the prayer. More importantly, if you have a recommendation letter from any AKP’s official, you get the job without being checked whether you fit to the description of the vacancy. This will certainly have a tremendous negative impact on the Army. And if the current setting will continue, we think that
“NATO will have, in two or four years, a member Army full of extremists and Salafists.”
If anyone thinks that a pro-Erdogan Salafist would fight-, under the Article 5 that sets up the principle of collective defense and which is the core of the Treaty, let’s say, along with Poland or any Baltic nation against a state competitor which is a threat to NATO, he or she is deeply mistaken. The Erdoganists would rather say “Why a Muslim should defend a land of infidels against another land of infidels?”. They will question NATO’s integrity. In this regard, it is also important to remember that Turkish NATO posts are now being filled with such Erdoganists officers and generals or ultranationalist ones.
One of the consequences of the fact that Turkish Army is now under full control of President Erdogan is that Turkish armed forces are divided between Erdoganists and pro-Russians. Imagine that NATO is to conduct an operation in Syria against extremists and Turkey is to be a part of the conduct.
One the one side, the Salafists from Turkish Army can weaken NATO operations against ISIL in Syria and on the other hand you have pro-Russian officers, under the influence of Dogu Perincek in Turkish military, who will not be OK with any NATO operation in Syria where Russia is heavily present. How these people will react when NATO will share intelligence with Turkey?
More importantly, there are still some key posts in the armed forces and Erdogan wants those positions to be occupied by his supporters, especially the positions of senior Officers; whereas Perincek wants those posts for his pro-Russian network in the army. That being said, some already argue that the two groups will clash sooner or later as one of them will contend for the whole power. However, so far they have been coordinating very well.
Last but not least, it should be mentioned that the Turkish Army was a sustainable link of Turkey’s relation with the EU and with the West in general.
“What we are witnessing now is a new generation which is raising within the Army, and which has Islamist views.”
Furthermore, because of the geography, its proximity to Europe, the ties between Turkey and Europe, the latter cannot afford to overlook the fact that, because of the purges, Turkey’s bureaucratic elite is gone. Instability has always been in Turkey, but people who could handle it were there as well. And, at this moment, there is no Turkish bureaucracy which can handle any further instability.
Vocal Europe: Is it likely that Turkish military will pursue a more Eurasian agenda? Which challenges – for Turkey, and for the region – will trigger that?
One thing is clear: the military is under the full control of President Erdogan, who is an opportunist. One day he may favor for Russia, then the other day you might see him handshaking with Trump and on another day he may favor for Iran.
You could find many evidences supporting that President Erdogan is a pure opportunist, who shifts easily his alliances, by looking at how he behaved during the jet crisis with Moscow. Although it was the former Prime Minister Davutoglu who said that he had given the order, President Erdogan stated that he was the one who had commanded the action against Russian jet.
“However, once the Russians started to play hard power politics against the Turkish government, President Erdogan stated that it was a Gülenist pilot who downed the jet in order to destabilize Turkish-Russian strategic relations.”
As the Army is under the control of President Erdogan, and as he is an opportunist, the Turkish military can pursue an Eurasian agenda or another agenda based on President Erdogan’s ambitions. And a NATO member cannot act in an unpredictable way.
Furthermore, it has never been in Turkey such an anti-Western attitude as there is nowadays: when you watch television, when you read the newspapers, there is such animosity against the West… and this Western-targeted animosity is influencing not only the people in Turkey, but it is poisoning the Turkish diaspora in Europe. In a way, this anti-Western attitude might become a matter of security for some European countries which have large communities of Turkish people.
On the other hand, Russia is certainly taking advantage of the current situation in Turkey, as Moscow is looking forward to Ankara to stand with itself against NATO. Furthermore, Turkey is close to seal the deal of purchasing S-400 missiles from Russia. This is truly unbelievable for a member of NATO. This will definitely harm not only the unity of NATO but NATO’s defense capability as well. When NATO reacted to this purchase, Turkey tried to reassure its NATO partners that it will not use these missiles for any NATO operations but it will rather use them for its internal security threats.
“What can be underlined is that Russia has now leverage via Turkey over NATO’s top decisions.”
Vocal Europe: How do you see the Trump administration’s decision to supply heavy weapons to the Syrian Kurdish Units (PYD), so that they can participate in the battle of Raqqa? How will this influence Turkey-NATO relations?
It is mostly a US-Turkey issue rather than a NATO-Turkey issue because it is a decision of the American administration, not a decision of NATO. What is surprising is the fact that President Erdogan’s criticism against this decision of Trump administration to supply PYD with heavy weapons was very moderate. Had it been the Obama Administration, President Erdogan’s reaction would have been different.
But YPG is part of Turkey’s Kurdish issue as well. Many of the purged generals and officers whom we know – and whom are currently arrested or dismissed – have very liberal ideas; they are supportive of the approach in taking new steps for a viable solution of the Kurdish issue. They tried to stop pro-Erdogan generals from conducting operations that targeted innocent people, women and children in the South East of Turkey. When seeing so many areas, villages and cities destroyed by artilleries… this was just heartbreaking. All these places ruined just because their residents were Kurds. The remaining generals and top brass are hardliners with regard to the Kurdish issue. Hence, President Erdogan did purge not only the officers who wanted to solve the Kurdish issue in a peaceful way, but he also kills the idea of solving the Kurdish issue in a democratic way.