A military exercise and meaning much more
A military exercise named ‘Winter 2012’ started Feb. 23, as one of the routines of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) on Turkey’s borders with Armenia and Georgia. In these exercises, the Turkish military hopes to test its capability of working in severe winter conditions.
Turks do not forget the bitter experience that lack of preparation cost the lives of tens of thousands of (Ottoman) Turkish troops (up to 90,000 according to some historians) against advancing Russian forces in 1915 near Sarıkamış, where the center of the current exercise takes place. Training in the current kind of operation enabled the Turkish army to carry out a week long cross-border land operation into Iraq in 2008, against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants under (or literally on) heavy snow, without considerable loss.
But what made this year’s military exercise particularly notable is the fact that it took place under the auspices of Turkish President Abdullah Gül.
He is actually the Commander in Chief of the TSK according to the constitution; but this is the first time since he was elected in 2007 that he has accepted – however symbolically - to rule the exercise in his presidential capacity. The symbolism of his first joining of a military exercise as president is much bigger than his presence there in military camouflage, boots, binoculars and all.
It is not in vain that Chief of Turkish Joint Staff, General Necdet Özel welcomed his presence, saying it gave a boost to the morale of the armed forces and strengthened them. The last five years have been hard for the Turkish military; if we remember that many of its top on-duty and retired officers are currently in jail, including one of the former heads of the army, İlker Başbuğ, who is accused of heading a “terrorist organization intending to undermine the government.” In the last five years, the “Ergenekon” and “Balyoz” cases have been probing the role of members of military in illegal attempts to overthrow the government, and these have forced the military to increasingly stay away from politics.
Özel is the fourth Chief of Staff that Gül worked with. The first was Yaşar Büyükanıt. He issued a written warning against the probability of Gül getting elected as President on April 27, 2007, to which Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan reacted strongly the next day, marking a milestone in relations between politics and the military in Turkey. Başbuğ was the second one. The third was Işık Koşaner, who told the writer of this article in 2006 (on condition of anonymity before his name was revealed by the military itself) that the army could obey the orders of a president with a headscarved wife as long as the orders were within the constitution, but that they would never socialize with him. He had to resign on July 29, 2011 upon his argument with Erdoğan over the arrest of army officers. That move was interpreted as throwing in the towel in this power struggle.
Özel is the first head of Turkish army for decades to avoid giving political statements, and he tries to keep the lower ranks of the military calm, despite the continued arrest of officers, including Başbuğ. The transfer of Turkey’s most able electronic listening facility from military to the civilian hands of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), could be realized under his command.
Therefore, Gül’s first appearance in a military exercise as president could be regarded as a milestone, closing another chapter in political-military relations in Turkey and showing that Gül’s possible distrust in the military is seemingly over.