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Questions about Turkey as a democracy and military model

When NATO meets in Chicago this weekend, intervention in Syria is sure to be discussed – perhaps by Syria's neighbor, Turkey, which presents itself as a democratic model for the Middle East with a strong military. But questionable investigations of its military undermine those claims.

By Murat Onur / May 18, 2012

Syrian refugees sit outside their tents at Reyhanli refugee camp in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border in April. Turkey's prime minister recently warned that 'Syria must be aware that in the event of a repetition of border violations, Turkey’s stance will not be the same.' Op-ed writer Murat Onur says a fifth of the military's top brass is under arrest.

Murad Sezer/Reuters

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When members of NATO gather at a summit in Chicago this weekend, the issue of possible alliance intervention in Syria is bound to come up – with the Turkish prime minister perhaps pushing the discussion.

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Turkey is considered a model of democracy for a mostly Muslim country. It has urged the president of its Syrian neighbor to step down and the Syrian opposition to unify. Tens of thousands of Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey and last month refugees there came under cross-border fire.

“We have strong armed forces. ...and Syria must be aware that in the event of a repetition of border violations, Turkey’s stance will not be the same,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently.

But is Turkey’s military really so strong, and is Turkey the democratic model that so many think it is?

If a country’s democracy were measured by the number of generals arrested, Turkey would be, by far, the most advanced democracy. Arrests of military figures have been going on for years but a new wave began in early April after police stormed the houses of several retired generals.

This is  part of the investigation into what is known as the military’s “post-modern coup” of Feb. 28, 1997 – in which the precursor to Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was eventually banned on charges of anti-secular activity. Modern Turkey was founded on the principle of secularism; the AKP today describes itself as a conservative democratic party. It sprang from the Islamist movement.

The “February 28” trial is the latest in a series of legal probes of the Turkish military by an AKP-friendly judicial branch.

The infamous “Ergenekon” trial, which began in 2008, has turned into a massive legal undertaking consisting of several cases. More than 250 people – including generals, politicians, academics, rights activists, journalists, and even students – are being investigated on charges that they belong to a clandestine terror network intent on overthrowing the government of Erdogan’s ruling party.

“Sledgehammer” is another case in which hundreds of retired and active officers are being investigated over an alleged 2003 coup plot against the AKP government.

Hundreds of retired and active officers are being investigated as a part of these investigations. More than 180 of them are in pre-trial detention, including the former chief of the Turkish armed forces, former chiefs of the Navy and Air Force, and several high-profile generals and admirals. More importantly, around 60 active generals and admirals are behind bars, making up more than 19 percent of the Turkish military’s top brass.

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