Is top commander’s leave linked to government’s Syria policy?
On May 9 it was announced that Turkish Chief of the General Staff Necdet Özel had taken a 15-day leave of absence for health reasons.
Speculations immediately started in the Ankara political backstage claiming that Özel’s leave could be linked to rumors that the government wanted to stage a military operation into Syria, against the wishes of the military. Gürsel Tekin, the secretary general of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), had claimed on May 7 that a “reliable source” had told him the Turkish military was going to enter Syria “in two days.”
Turkish daily Aydınlık likened Özel’s leave with the resignation of Necip Torumtay from the same post in late 1990. At that time, then-President Turgut Özal wanted to head into Iraq with the U.S.-led coalition, but the military resisted. Was Özel resisting President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in order to not involve the Turkish army in civil war-struck Syria?
Turkish daily Milliyet speculated that Özel could extend his leave until the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meetings in late July/early August, and that until his retirement Land Forces Commander General Hulusi Akar would be the acting Chief of General Staff. In a sense, such a move would stop the government from taking the radical decision to order the army to intervene in Syria, at least until after the critical parliamentary elections on June 7.
On May 11, Davutoğlu told daily Yeni Şafak that the speculation was groundless and the only reason for the leave period was Özel’s health condition, as the latter said himself during their meeting on May 7.
It was true that Özel was due to have a prostate operation in the Gazi University Hospital, where his own physician and his daughter both work, instead of the Gülhane Military Hospital. But it was he who decided on the date of the leave and the operation, according to official sources speaking to the Hürriyet Daily News on condition of anonymity.
According to the same sources, there could be two other reasons for the timing of Özel’s medical leave.
The timeline of developments last week could give an idea about Özel’s decision to ask for leave from PM Davutoğlu.
On May 6, a Tarsus criminal court ruled for the capture of four prosecutors and an army officer on duty for the gendarmerie, in relation to an incident on Jan. 19, 2014, when gendarmerie forces acting on prosecutors’ orders stopped trucks close to Gaziantep near the Syrian border. The trucks were hired by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and the prosecutors wanted to conduct a search on suspicion that they were carrying arms and ammunition for the Islamist rebel forces in Syria fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. (At the time, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan had announced that the load was assistance to Turkmens living in Syria and its halting was “against national interests”). The prosecutor of the Tarsus court was claiming that the prosecutors and the gendarmerie commander were under the manipulation of Fethullah Gülen, the moderate Islamist ideologue living in the U.S. who used to be a close ally of Erdoğan but is now an archenemy.
With similar accusations, an Istanbul court had arrested 17 gendarmerie and army officers and non-commissioned officers on April 10, 2015.
Despite a new law putting the Interior Ministry and not the General Staff in charge of the gendarmerie, the officers and non-commissioned officers are still military personnel - at least they were at the time of the incidents. According to HDN sources, amid concerns that the case could turn into another purge of the military like the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, Özel wanted to stop prosecutions without evidence and contacted the Justice Ministry. The next day, he met with PM Davutoğlu.
During that meeting, there was another issue that bothered Özel, the sources claimed. Davutoğlu wanted to visit the tomb of Süleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. The tomb had been removed through a military operation led by Özel on Feb. 23, 2015, which moved it from its former position 37 kilometers inside Syria, in territory under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), to just 200 meters from the border, again in Syrian territory but theis time controlled by Kurdish forces under the Democratic Union Party (PYD). It was the military that first suggested moving the tomb to a safer place in order to avoid clashes and possible losses in Syria. But apparently General Özel did not want to be in the picture in Syrian territory with less than a month left before the elections.
Özel then asked for Davutoğlu’s permission for a leave on health grounds, (as far as it was announced under those circumstances).
On May 8, an army colonel, Özkan Çokay, was arrested by the court in relation to the MİT trucks to Syria.
On May 9, Özel’s leave was first leaked and then confirmed.
On May 10, Davutoğlu crossed the border into Syria and visited the Süleyman Shah tomb with Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz and acting Chief of Staff General Akar.
On May 11, Davutoğlu’s statement about “only health reasons” was made, which was followed by a written statement from the military saying that “some of the speculations were not true.”
By the way, Özel’s health condition, according to sources, is likely to permit him to return to office next week and attend the NATO Chiefs of Defense meeting in Brussels on May 21-22.
In summary, it seems that there is no problem strategic enough to trigger a “Torumtay effect” for the time being regarding government-military relations. But it still doesn’t seem to be a problem-free area.