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.

Murad Sezer/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

Many aspects of these investigations contradict the principles of democratic governance and rule of law. Most of the suspects are behind bars without any verdict in their cases. The Council of Europe recently raised concerns about the withholding of evidence from defendants at the investigation stage (often extending into years) which deprives them of the opportunity to challenge their detentions.

The European Union’s 2010 progress report on Turkey says the Ergenekon case and “several” of the coup probes raise concerns about “judicial guarantees for all suspects.”

Independent forensic experts also discovered that a significant portion of the evidence used against the suspects is forged or their authenticity is questionable. Those who write about such irregularities often face a powerful defamation campaign by the dominant pro-AKP media.

True, the Turkish military did engineer politics and shape governments in the past – carrying out four coups since 1960. Yet many believe the coup trials have now become political mechanisms through which those who are in power are subduing the opposition and attacking presumed threats against the AKP’s growing dominance in the country.

Having the second largest military in NATO and the longest land border with Syria, Turkey’s support – diplomatic and, perhaps, military – will be crucial if the so-called “Annan plan” and its UN cease-fire provision fail to resolve the Syrian crisis.

Yet Turkey’s democracy and its institutions, including the armed forces, are seriously undermined by irrelevant accusations against military members and others, lengthy imprisonment without verdicts, indefinite pre-trial detentions, and powerful defamation campaigns against the AKP’s opponents.

The arrests of hundreds of officers – including members of elite special forces – by police counter-terrorism units and the humiliation of top generals by the pro-AKP media may weaken the morale and discipline in the armed forces.

Moreover, a military that lacks a fifth of its top officers may face serious challenges in supporting an international military intervention on the border.

The AKP-led government must stop eroding the rule of law at home by ensuring the judiciary and police function within the limits of democratic governance and the courts are not used to target presumed opponents of its ideology.

And the government should match its deeds on democracy and human rights at home with its talk about them abroad. Otherwise, Turkey may descend into the league of the world’s  quasi-democracies, and lose its democratic influence in the region.

Murat Onur is a  foreign affairs analyst and political commentator on Turkey.

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