Turkish naval chief’s removal from active duty sparks talk of military power struggle

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s surprise decision to remove from active duty rear admiral and naval chief of staff Cihat Yaycı sparked a wave of media speculation on the motivation and repercussions of the decision.

While the motive for removing Yaycı remains unclear, left-wing and nationalist media outlets say the decision will be welcomed by groups and states they deem to be enemies of Turkey. Some have blamed the dismissal, which led to his resignation on Monday morning, on a power struggle between Yaycı and the cadre built around Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, who headed the army before moving to the ministry in 2018.

Known as the architect of Turkey’s maritime deal with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) that was signed in November, Yaycı’s demotion raises questions about the future of the agreement, which escalated tensions in the gas-rich waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey plans to implement the GNA deal by starting drilling activities in the region in July, but Greece, Cyprus and Egypt object to the agreement, seeing it as a brazen bid by Ankara for dominance in the contested waters. 

Lauded by pro-government and left-wing media alike, Yaycı is known for his nationalist and expansionist views, and was one of the military officers best-known by the public. Erdoğan in December explicitly thanked the naval chief for his work on Turkey’s Libya policy and masterminding the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal.

In his book “Requirements of Greece: The Problems in the Aegean with Questions and Answers,” Yaycı maintains that Turkey should revive the spirit of the Ottoman Empire and claim sovereignty over some islands and islets in the Aegean.

Ultranationalist left-wing Ayınlık newspaper said the suspension of Yaycı from active duty would damage Turkey’s interests in the Aegean and Mediterranean, while left-wing news site SoL recalled that the admiral was a rare figure whose policies were praised by Erdoğan and had received approval across the media spectrum, including accolades from opposition outlets like Sözcü newspaper.

Sözcü columnist Aytunç Erkin said Yaycı had been targeted by the Gülenists, a religious group accused by Ankara of a long-running scheme to infiltrate key public and military positions. Members of the Gülen group are blamed by the government and many others in Turkey for orchestrating the July 2016 coup attempt.

Yaycı had developed a technique for identifying alleged Gülenists in the military known in Turkey as FETÖMETRE, as Ahmet Zeki Üçok, a retired military judge, noted in his column for the left-wing nationalist news site Oda TV.

Tens of thousands of military officers were dismissed due to their alleged links to the Gülen movement and thousands of former military personnel arrested on grounds of their alleged involvement in the averted coup of 2016, and Yaycı’s technique was reported as playing a key role in identifying those officers.

This earned Yaycı a reputation as a key figure in Erdoğan’s fight against the Gülenists. Retired senior rear admiral Cem Gürdeniz said in a column for Aydınlık that Yaycı’s removal was likely to be “met with shrieks of victory by fugitive Gülenist military officers.”

Opposition Sözcü columnist Saygı Öztürk was also critical of the decision to remove Yaycı from his post, linking it to enmity he had gained for his campaign against the Gülenists.

"There was a campaign starting from the beginning of April against Yaycı,” Öztürk said.

"Reports emerged in Gülenist social media accounts saying nobody should be too surprised if he resigns or is forced to resign," he said, adding that the dismissal would also be a cause for celebrations in Greece.

But Erkin said Yaycı’s dismissal had come due to a protracted series of disagreements with Defence Minister Hulusi Akar rather than scheming by Gülenists.

Turkey’s Chief of General Staff Yaşar Güler, known as a close ally of Akar’s, greenlighted an investigation into Yaycı over contested military equipment tenders, according to Üçok.

The naval chief issued an order to reject wires for torpedoes that were produced by a company owned by a relative of the head of naval logistics after a team of inspectors found that they had not met the required standards, Üçok said.

The manufacturer responded by writing to the Defence Ministry and claiming that its products had been rejected because it was a Turkish company, the retired military judge added. This, he said, spurred Akar to order an investigation into Yaycı that led to his demotion.

Üçok said tensions between the pair had peaked in December when Yaycı was prevented from attending a critical strategy meeting at the presidential palace, and another admiral was sent in his place without any official explanation.