According to investigators, the plan included various killings and attacks against religious minorities, including the assassination of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to be blamed on Islamic groups in order to overthrow the government led by the AKP party, headed by the charismatic Erdogan who has dominated Turkish politics since 2002.
The arrest of General Ilker Basbug, chief of the General Staff between 2008 and 2010, when he retired, is the first involving the head of the armed forces, seen until recently as the guarantors of the Kemalist constitution. Ilker Basbug never concealed his opposition to the governing AKP government (since 2002) because of its Islamist orientation.
In June 2009, he gave a famous interview in which he said the Turkish armed forces would not stand idly by whilst a smear campaign was underway against the armed forced for allegedly trying to overthrow the Erdogan government. Such charges came at a time of growing crisis in the Middle East because of the Iranian question. The general ended by stressing that military courts had rejected the charges of conspiracy. For his part, Erdogan had replied by saying that civilian courts would deal with the matter since military justice could not be trusted.
Basbug’s arrest confirms the unbridgeable gap between the military and Erdogan, who by this action is not only showing that he has tamed the armed forces, but that he can skilfully use the long-term row every time his government is in difficulty, analysts in Istanbul and diplomatic sources noted.
The latter note that Ilker Basbug’s arrest comes after a tragic event that is a major headache for the Erdogan government, especially among Turkey’s millions of Kurds at a time when relations between Ankara and this community are tense, despite positive steps taken in the recent past.
The spark was the massacre on 28 December in Uludere, a small village in southeastern Turkey (near the city of Sirnak) on the border with Syria. That day, F16 fighter planes attacked a group of smugglers carrying goods between Turkey and Syria, killing 35 people, including boys. Local Kurdish tribes rely on smuggling as their sole source of income.
The Erdogan government tried to hide this tragic mistake, fearing the reaction of Turkey’s large Kurdish community. However, news about the killing of Kurdish teenagers spread quickly online, undermining Erdogan’s credibility. The “miraculous” arrest of Basbug, who is much disliked by Kurds for his anti-Kurdish past, appears to have pushed the Uludere affair to the backburner.
Not for opposition parties who have however accused the AKP government of using and perpetuating the Ergenekon affair in order to silence all voices opposed to their administration by going after officers, journalists, lawyers and academics.
In a statement, General Ilker Basbug said that it was strange that his arrest came a year and half after he retired for offences allegedly committed during his term of office.
The issue will be discussed next Wednesday in a meeting between President Abdullah Gul and the current chief of the General Staff and the head of the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT).