How Erdogan’s purge hit the EU and NATO

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NATO HQ, Brussels. The transatlantic alliance has effectively ceased to operate reliably beyond Greece and Bulgaria's eastern borders. [Utenriksdepartementet/ Flickr]

The European Parliament will this week vote on whether to suspend Turkey’s EU membership bid. Andrew Duff explains how the Turkish military has reacted to Erdoğan’s power grabbing and how NATO fits into the equation.

Andrew Duff was an MEP for the UK’s Liberal Democrats from 1999 to 2014 and a prominent member of the Constitutional Affairs Committee in the European Parliament.

“The Turkish army has been mounting coup d’états since Mehmet the Conqueror. We know how to do it. We would not have made a mistake.” My interlocutor is a former member of the Turkish General Staff who, with four colleagues, meet me in a nondescript venue in Brussels.

They represent 40 Turkish officers from NATO HQ in Brussels, all sacked peremptorily in September. Overall, 700 out of a pool assigned to NATO of 900 officers are purged or jailed. They are, or were, the cream of the Turkish armed forces, including many post-graduates from the US Naval School in Monterey, California.

They want to talk about their plight. They are victims of President Erdoğan’s purge. If they go home (as some colleagues did) they will be arrested and imprisoned without hope of a fair trial. Most are applying for political asylum in Belgium.

Their properties in Turkey are sequestrated, and members of their families at home, including mothers, have been interrogated. All deny complicity in the July putsch. They are incriminated, they say, because they are Western and intellectual.

They are typical of a new Western-oriented class of military officer that has sought escape from an Ottoman past that was littered with plots, coups, scandals, corruption, torture, and murder. But old habits die hard. “Even Mustafa Kemal [Ataturk] was a ‘putsch-ist’”, my companions remind me proudly.

These are professional military men. All have fought against the PKK, and distrust Erdoğan for his on/off talks with the Kurdish leader Ocalan. They are suspicious of Erdoğan’s adventurism in Syria and Iraq.

They go rather quiet when I ask about Cyprus. Most have trained in North Cyprus. They do not think that the conditions are right for the complete withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island.

New to politics

They want to meet me because, in happier times, I have been known as a supporter of Turkish membership of the European Union. “We are sorry because we know you are busy with Brexit. But we have never met a European politician before,” they add politely.

In fact, it turns out that they have never even met a Turkish politician: the pillarisation of Turkish society between civilian and military is rigid and unforgiving. Photoshoots at the Ataturk memorial in Ankara with government leaders are about the limit of their contact with ‘democratic’ Turkey.

Several admit nevertheless to once having voted for the ruling party, the AKP — at least until Erdoğan turned against the military, obliterated the free press and suppressed academic freedom (where the cull includes some of their respected old professors at university, or the military academy).

My interlocutors yearn to serve a modern European democratic Turkey. They hold the traditional political parties in disregard, suspecting them of corruption, incompetence and chronic clientelism. They oppose Erdoğan’s plans to centralise powers around the presidency and liken the AKP today to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. When one calls Erdoğan an ‘Islamo-fascist’, none flinch.

The military undermined

Erdoğan’s earlier strikes against the overweening power of the Kemalist establishment are not resented by the younger officers. They are loyal to the armed forces but not uncritical.

They know that Turkey’s military has enjoyed great privileges since the foundation of the republic in 1923. The military budget is beyond the scrutiny of the Turkish Grand National Assembly. A constant battle between Turkey’s civilian and military echelon has been played out in the secretive national security council.

Bastion of secularism, the military itself has been consumed with inter-service and inter-generational rivalry, and many generals have been enriched by running unimpeded a powerful military industrial complex.

But the current purge, planned and executed by President Erdoğan, has spread so far and wide that Turkey’s armed forces are now hollowed out. The professional cadre who meet me in distress in Brussels has been replaced at NATO by a small number of younger officers who are little better than AKP party commissars.

There is evidence that the Turkish government is now recruiting Special Forces direct from the civilian market, and arming radical Islamist youth movements. All modern military high schools are shut down.

NATO destabilised

Turkey joined NATO (with Greece) as long ago as 1952. For years, in good times and bad, the only reliable interlocutors with Turkey’s vast armed forces have been the US military.

Erdoğan alleges that the CIA, somehow inspired by Fethullah Gülen from his unlikely hideout in Pennsylvania, was behind the putsch. Whatever the truth, it is difficult to believe that the Americans had no knowledge of the affair in advance.

So today, at least under President Obama, the US military are not talking to the new AKP party interlopers at NATO in Brussels or SHAPE in Mons. In effect, NATO has ceased to operate reliably on its south-eastern flank. The collective security of the West now stops at Edirne, in Thrace.

It is little short of astonishing, therefore, that Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, told a NATO conference in Istanbul on Monday, in front of Erdoğan, that Turkey remains a steadfast ally.

This Thursday (24 November), the European Parliament will vote on whether to recommend the suspension of the EU’s enlargement talks with Turkey. My new friends would regret this move but understand it. They are convinced that Erdoğan is taking Turkey out of the Western bloc and that when this happens his unholy alliance of Islamists and nationalists, now pitched against the Kurds and Gülenists, will not survive.

They predict that Turkey will descend into a bloodbath. “Luckily, we will be here when this is happening. We will not have to face ethical dilemmas in an internal conflict in which no side can claim to have a just cause.”