“The chief of General Staff is the commander of the Turkish Armed Forces [TSK] and a public official who has responsibility to the state and whose duties and authorities are set out by law. I think a public official should analyze correctly where, what and when to speak. That’s why I am trying to not to speak much or be on the agenda much,” Özel said on Monday, in stark contrast with Turkey’s former chiefs of general staff, who habitually expressed their opinions on political matters, even those not related to the military or its officers.
He was responding to questions raised by critics of recent trials involving senior military officers, who have criticized him for remaining silent in the face of convictions of dozens of defendants in these trials.
Özel, a former gendarmerie general commander, was appointed as Land Forces commander and acting chief of General Staff after Chief of General Staff Gen. Işık Koşaner and the commanders of the air, navy and land forces all resigned from their positions amid controversy over the appointment of generals in the 2011 summer meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ), which convenes every August to discuss promotions and dismissals within the armed forces.
Özel was the only commander who did not request retirement in 2011.
The resignation of so many top commanders for the first time ever in Turkey indicated a deep rift with the government, which had been confident in confronting a military that once held sway over Turkish political life. The arrests of high-ranking military officers in coup related trials would once have been unimaginable.
The resignations of Turkey’s top generals had come hours after a court charged 22 suspects, including several generals and officers, with carrying out an Internet campaign to undermine the government. The case was later merged with the Ergenekon trial.
The fact that there were some commanders and military officers who were suspects in Ergenekon led to tension between the military and the government about the promotion of these individuals. The government resisted the move and the individuals were not promoted in the end, leading to the force commanders’ resignations.
The resignations and Özel’s appointment were the first time a democratically elected government could have its say at a YAŞ meeting.
The Turkish military has staged three coups and forced a former prime minister to quit. Coup leaders drew on the support of Turks who saw them as saviors from chaos and corruption, but they were often ruthless. In a 1960 takeover, the prime minister and key ministers were executed. In a 1980 coup, there were numerous cases of torture, disappearance and extrajudicial killing. Outside politics, the military enjoys respect and vast economic resources.
The 9th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals earlier this month announced its ruling in an appeal of a previous decision in the Sledgehammer (Balyoz) coup plot trial, upholding the convictions of 237 of the defendants, which include former and active duty military officers.
Sledgehammer is a coup plot devised at a military gathering in 2003. According to the plan, the military was to systematically foment chaos in society through violent acts, among which were planned bomb attacks on the Fatih and Beyazıt mosques in İstanbul.
The plot allegedly sought to undermine the government, laying the groundwork for a military takeover. Those convicted were found guilty of making a failed attempt to overthrow the government.