- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

KYRENIA, Cyprus — At the bark of a command, the ranks of soldiers with closely cropped hair froze. Then, as one man, they roared: “Bir Turk dunyaya bedel dir!” — “One Turk is worth the whole world!”

The sun was rising over the ruins of the 13th-century Bellapais Abbey and the olive groves stretching toward the sandy beaches. It was there, in the gentle Mediterranean summer mist, that an armada of 22 Turkish warships appeared on July 20, 1974, to seize a strip of Cyprus and create a home for the island’s Turkish-Cypriot minority.

Today the Greek-Cypriot part of this eastern Mediterranean island is in the European Union. The Turkish-Cypriots, however, are still isolated in their tiny state and the Turkish army is still here, protecting Turkey’s southern outpost — the unexpected windfall of the bungled Greek coup to unite the island with Greece.

According to Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the Turkish General Staff, the Turkish military presence in Cyprus — some 30,000 troops — is “crucial,” and losing its base here would mean “Turkey is encircled.”

He added that, if the part of the island calling itself “the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” became an internationally recognized independent state, it would “affect territorial waters, economic zones and the freedom of movement of Turkish troops.”

It was one of the most recent political signals from the Turkish military establishment, which the late Turkish President Turgut Ozal once described to The Washington Times as “the most respected force in the nation.”

The approaching start of Turkey’s European Union membership negotiations has silenced the Turkish military and forced it to cede ground to politicians. The military has bowed to EU requirements, but remains vigilant.

Equally vigilant is the European Commission, the EU’s governing body, which, in a report Wednesday analyzing Turkey’s recent reforms, cautioned: “Although the process of aligning civil-military relations with EU practice is under way, the armed forces in Turkey continue to exercise influence through a series of informal channels.”

Opinions vary on how “informal” these channels are, and to what extent the cadres of the conscript army of half a million — the second largest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — have been sidestepped by the government in its effort to be accepted by Europe’s “Christian Club.”

Efforts to silence the military are not new, although the last overt act of the armed forces was to force the ouster of the pro-Islamic government of Necmettin Erbakan in 1997. The army avoided sending tanks into the streets during what was subsequently dubbed “a soft coup,” and says that it acted in its role as the “guardian” of the secular system introduced more than 80 years ago by Mustafa Kemal, later called Ataturk — “Father of the Turks” — who founded the republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Ataturk, today the leading Turkish national hero, was no sissy and neither were his soldiers.

As a military commander during an August 1915 attack against the Australia-New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) to stop the Allied drive for control of the Dardanelles, Col. Kemal ordered a bayonets-only attack and told the troops: “I am not ordering you to attack, I am ordering you to die.” One of the regiments fought to the last man, also killing a British brigade commander.

More than 33,000 Allied soldiers and 86,000 Turkish troops died in the eight-month Gallipoli campaign, but Turkey was saved.

The spirit of “do or die” has since remained in the Turkish army, which suffered high casualties as part of the United Nations force during the Korean War. Turkish military leaders consider it their duty to protect what has become known as “Kemalism” and make sure that politicians don’t ruin Ataturk’s republican heritage.

No analyst underestimates the power and influence of the Turkish military, which Giles Merritt, director of Forum Europe, described as the “thorniest aspect” of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

“The power and status of the army is a striking feature of life in Turkey,” he said, adding that the nature of the army’s relations with the government and parliament “is unthinkable in European terms,” because Europeans “want a system in which parliaments and not generals decide on defense budgets.”

Turkish pundits generally see the army as more than just a military force. To Mehmet Ali Kislale, “in Turkey the army is more than a branch of state. It is a unifying and to some extent a civilizing force.”

Observed British historian David Hotham: “The army takes peasants from remote villages, feeds them, clothes them, teaches them to read and write, brings them to the cities.”

Mehmet Ali Birand, a respected Turkish commentator, sees the army as an integral part of the Turkish system, but “a kind of nongovernmental organization — an interest group with heavy weapons.”

As Turkey prepares for what may be a long and arduous negotiations with the European Union, the highly motivated albeit underpaid military cadres are torn by conflicting feelings.

Turkish political scientists say that, on the one hand, the army believes that joining the European Union would be in keeping with the legacy of Ataturk, who saw Europe as Turkey’s ultimate goal. On the other hand, the generals are bitterly aware of widespread European opposition to admitting a Muslim nation of 70 million with a galloping birth rate soon likely to dwarf even such populous countries as Germany.

A recent opinion poll shows 56 percent of French respondents opposed to Turkey’s EU membership, which the French government wants to submit to a referendum likely to capsize the Turkish application.

Underlying the military’s frustration with the recent clipping of its political wings is its uneasy relationship with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has Islamic roots of the sort that prompted the 1997 “soft coup” by the generals.

Gen. Ozkok, a soft-spoken, bespectacled leader of the military establishment, has often told his officers he fears the government is using EU requirements to undermine the army’s traditional role. Still, he has ordered senior officers to remain silent while the government copes with the increasingly controversial EU problem.

According to one Western diplomatic assessment, as far as Turkey’s military establishment is concerned, the Erdogan Cabinet “is the worst government that could be in power at this time.”

Turkish generals, the report said, regard the European Union as naive in its views of Turkey’s suppression of the Kurdish revolt and feel Europeans underestimate the “Islamic connection” of Mr. Erdogan’s AKP.

This year saw the army, under political pressure, relinquish control of the all-important National Security Council (MGK) established following the 1960 military coup, and then, after the 1980 coup, turned by the military into a “command center” supervising the government.

The MGK still meets regularly but in an increasingly tense atmosphere, its civilian members on one side of a massive, highly polished table and the bemedalled generals on the other.

Turkish sources say Gen. Ozkok has issued instructions to senior commanders that in view of Turkey’s EU ambition they should abstain from making public political comments.

One recent report claimed that with the prospect of EU membership negotiations, the MGK has become a purely advisory body. Its meetings are less frequent — apparently once every two months — thus reducing its role in political decisions.

Also, and this appears to be crucial, the nonclassified aspects of the defense budget are now submitted to civilian scrutiny.

Few analysts have ever accused the Turkish military of craving power. After every one of its three major coups between 1960 and 1980, the army returned to barracks, leaving the chastened politicians in charge of running the country.

Until now, the army had its way in a number of cases:

• It has held on to its conquest of northern Cyprus regardless of its political implications.

• It ousted the pro-Islamic government in 1997.

• It brought the Kurdish revolt under control.

• It pushed through a defense treaty with Israel that still troubles Arab capitals.

The military takeover of Sept. 12, 1980, lasted three years. It is regarded by the generals and a number of Turks as a salutary operation that saved Turkey from civil war.

The army watched with alarm as 2,200 people died in sectarian violence during 1979. On the eve of the military coup, the death rate averaged 30 a day. Security services identified 47 underground groups.

Politicians hurled insults at each other while 1,275 bills awaited parliamentary action. In the city of Konya, some 40,000 demonstrators clamored for an Islamic state.

After the seizure of some 86,000 weapons, mass arrests, trials and “political cleansing” — as a result of which some prominent politicians were banned from public office — the army marched back to its barracks.

But all Turks remain aware of its watchful presence.

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