Turkish military refuses to be drawn into pre-election politics, but worries about Kurdish autonomy

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has decried efforts to drag it into political debates ahead of this weekend’s local elections, pledging to stay out of politics for the sake of the nation’s best interests.

“It has been observed with regret that there have been efforts in recent days to draw the TSK into political matters ahead of the local elections. The TSK believes that its staying out of political debates and matters is necessary for the perpetuity of our state and the wellbeing and security of our great nation,” the military said in a statement, going on to emphasize its commitment to the constitutional principles of a “democratic, secular, social state respecting the rule of law” and adding that it opposes “anti-democratic methods and practices.”

The military’s statement came in the wake of the downing of a Syrian warplane on Sunday. The military said the Syrian MiG-23 had ignored several warnings and violated Turkish airspace. The timing of the incident, just a week before the elections, has given rise to speculation that it could have been a government attempt to rally public support and distract attention from a sweeping graft probe targeting close allies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The prime minister announced the downing of the Syrian aircraft at an election rally, congratulating the military for its success.

The Turkish military said the strike was in line with “national and international legal norms” and dismissed media reports as “speculative,” without giving specifics.

“The TSK carried out its task successfully, using the authorities granted to it,” the military said on Wednesday.

The TSK’s rules of engagement for the Syrian border were changed after a Turkish reconnaissance plane was shot down off Syria’s Mediterranean coast in June 2012. Under the new rules, any Syrian military element approaching the border is considered a threat.

Media reports after Turkey’s shooting down the Syrian warplane claimed that the Syrian aircraft was seven kilometers inside of Turkey when it was shot down by the Turkish armed forces.

The military’s Wednesday statement also noted that “it has no troops in Syria outside of the Süleyman Şah Saygı Post” — which protects the burial site of the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire — calling reports to the contrary “unrealistic.”

The tomb of Süleyman Şah topped the agenda after reports in the Turkish press on March 14 that area had been surrounded by al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters. ISIL reportedly demanded that Turkey lower its flag and withdraw its troops protecting the tomb within three days. The Turkish government issued a firm statement pledging to protect Turkey’s only territory outside of its borders.

Speaking to Agence France-Presse in Konya on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also underlined Turkey’s determination to guard the tomb, saying: “The Turkish republic is a powerful state and never hesitates to take any measures to protect its national security if need be. … Any group in Syria, or the regime, should not test Turkey’s determination.”

An article of the 1921 Franco-Turkish Agreement of Ankara allows Turkey to guard and hoist its flag over the tomb, which is described as Turkish property; the arrangement was accepted by an independent Syria.

Another dimension that involves military is the March 30 elections and the Kurdish vote.   It is reported that there was a ‘verbal exchange’ between Erdoğan and top commander, Necdet Özel, at the latest National Security Council (MGK) meeting in Ankara.

Murat Yetkin from Radikal and Daily News reports:

There is no surprise expected in the predominantly Kurdish-populated southeastern provinces of Turkey; the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is focused on the Kurdish problem, is likely to win many mayoralties there.

In those provinces, Ankara’s main worry is the BDP’s already-announced plans to declare (what they call) “democratic autonomy” with flags and “self-defense units,” etc. That has actually long been the plan of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which shares the same grassroots as the BDP. Those scenarios were discussed in the National Security Board (MGK) meeting on Feb. 26, along with Syria, election security and the “threat” posed by Gülenists.

Erdoğan, who started a dialogue with Öcalan through National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan in pursuit of a political solution, suspects that Gülen wants to sabotage that dialogue.

There is another dimension to the post-March 30 situation regarding the Kurdish issue. If Erdoğan has to ask for a military intervention in an extreme possible case of a declaration of “autonomy,” the military would not volunteer unless there are written orders within the framework of the law. It’s not just the whole Ergenekon and “Balyoz” (Sledgehammer) court cases – which Erdoğan now blames on Gülenist police, prosecutors and judges – but also after the Uludere disaster in which 34 villagers were killed by the Air Force after they were mistaken for PKK militants, soldiers would prefer written orders so as not to be blamed later, just as NATO standards impose.

But that may not be needed. There are indications that Erdoğan might have hinted at more flexible local rule after the March 30 elections in return for a continuation of the existing de facto cease-fire; after all, no one has been killed as a result of PKK attacks or military operations in the last one-and-a-half years thanks to that dialogue process.

Perhaps that is why Öcalan said in his Nevruz message on March 21 that, despite the slow pace of the government, there is a chance to alter the 200-year-old paradigm if the current political balance is maintained.

That implied possible local collaborations between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) and the BDP. Actually, there are reports that the AK Parti would like to replace the support it has received from the Gülenists in the last few elections with support from the BDP. There are claims that in some towns of the eastern province of Erzurum, AK Parti supporters are going to vote for BDP mayors, and the BDP will do the same for Erzurum Metropolitan Municipality.

Also, there are reports of similar collaboration in İzmir, where the AK Parti really wants to gain the support of Kurdish voters to close the gap with the Republican People’s Party (CHP) there. For three relatively Kurdish districts of Ankara, there are similar speculations. The AK Parti wants to compensate for the loss of Alevi votes in the Syrian border province of Hatay with BDP votes. And claims that the BDP has asked for 10,000 jobs in Istanbul in return for AK Parti support have not been denied yet.

All of this has room in daily politics. But autonomy is a different and much bigger story, and that is something that will be observed after March 30.’







About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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