Retired admirals’ letter signals a possible rift within Erdoğan’s government
The outcry following the publication of a letter penned by 103 retired Turkish admirals on Sunday showcases a possible rift within President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.
In their letter, the admirals warned against any decision that undermined the Montreux Convention, an international convention that regulates the passage of ships into and out of the Black Sea. Fear that Erdoğan could withdraw from it was sparked by a comment by Speaker of the Parliament Mustafa Sentop, who said the president had the authority to do so if he wanted to. Sentop defended his comment, saying that it was not meant as any statement of intent.
Officials from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) condemned the letter when it became public. Fahrettin Altun, Erdoğan’s communications director, slammed the authors as “pawns of foreign powers” and Sentop labeled the letter an allusion to a military coup. On Sunday, Ankara’s Public Prosecutor Office announced an investigation into the letter’s signatories.
Dr. Gökhan Bacık, a political science professor at Palacký University in the Czech Republic, said that this war of words could be a hint towards an internal schism within Erdoğan’s alliance of Islamists, ultranationalists and a Kemalist cadre that formed after the failed coup attempt in July 2016.
“What we have observed now is typical of Middle Eastern politics,” Bacik told Ahval News in a new podcast. He pointed to recent news of a suspected coup attempt in Jordan as another example of the region’s tense brand of internal regime politics.
Bacik described this as “nothing new” in the Turkish sense given the long-running conflict between secularist Kemalists and Islamists like President Erdoğan. However, after the failed coup there was an alliance of convenience between Erdoğan’s coalition and so-called Eurasianists within the Turkish military. The binding agent of this alliance was a shared enemy in the form of Fethullah Gulen and his followers, who are accused of orchestrating the coup.
The admirals’ letter references this shared struggle, pointing to past purges of its ranks in cases like the controversial Ergenekon trial. As the Gulenists were rooted out, Bacik believes that certain elements among the Kemalist-Eurasianist factions are signalling through their letter an unhappiness with the current division of power inside the state and potentially a shift in its make up.
“The Turkish state is in a process of redefining its ideology,” he said.
Purges of the military before and after the failed coup present a clear example of this. In their letter, the admirals criticised any diversion from attempts “to portray the TSK (Turkish Army) and our Naval forces as if they moved away from these values and the modern path drawn by Atatürk.”
This was meant as a jab at the “Islamisation” of the armed forces, whose past leaders initiated coups against Turkish leaders who strayed away from state secularism. At the end of the letter, the authors ominously warned that an attempt “may face the risk and threat of experiencing depressing and the most dangerous incidents for its survival, which have examples in history."
This was the line AKP officials seized on as proof that the admirals were foreshadowing a coup, but Bacik contends that it is unclear whether the letter was “a serious idea or a silly idea”. He did note that it can be assumed some currently serving officers in the military may be sympathetic to the authors’ views, or even share them, but that is still unknown.
To this end, Bacik sounded a note of caution that this letter could easily amount to “political suicide” if it did not find an interested audience. The AKP’s reaction to the letter showed how easily Erdoğan could turn the issue to his advantage by framing it as simply another coup threat that could be swept aside.
Bacik explains that this could have been done sooner, but the threat of the Gulenists necessitated having them onboard his side. Now that the Gulenists are diminished, a timer may now be set on the Kemalist faction’s political survival.
“The day Erdoğan does not need them, they will be purged,” said Bacik.