Two months ago I was a mandarin in a game administered by Erdal Öztürk. Next month he may be executed for treason…
The black vehicles turned quickly off Haji Ali Akinci Cadessi in Erzincan with their lights flashing. There were no guards at the front gate; the Turkish 3rd Army had been ordered to return to barracks by its commander. Even with the street lights on, the long promenade from the avenue to the steps of the headquarters building seemed dark and deserted at one in the morning. Red and blue lights flashed eerily across the massive bronze face of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s statue making his steady gaze seem to alternate monstrously between crimson anger and deep blue sorrow. A tragic confrontation was about to take place in his name. The 3rd Army commander, General Erdal Öztürk, sat quietly behind his desk overlooking the promenade and watched calmly as the police raced up the stairs with their guns drawn. He had already packed his belongings and sent his staff home before calling his wife. These were the early morning hours of 16 July 2016 and he was under arrest for treason. The coup d’etat he was accused of organizing against the Erdogan government had failed as spectacularly as it began.
Two months earlier I was in Istanbul for NATO exercise Trident Jaguar 2016; a training event designed to certify General Öztürk’s Rapid Deployable Corps Headquarters to serve as a NATO joint task force. I never met General Öztürk one on one but I did not need to; his imprint was on everything. He was a good commander in every way. Intelligent, directive, patient, concerned about his staff and his men, and interested in details but not beholden to them, General Öztürk served as both leader and teacher of his staff. I respected him.
I was a member of an elite group of experts employed by NATO to replicate all the functions of a host nation government and the international community in exercises. Known simply as the “White Cell”, we presented complex challenges for the commander and his staff they would be likely to face in a real contingency operation. Our job was to add realism to their training by forcing them to consider the complexities of host nation politics, bureaucratic infighting, opportunism, corruption, and interagency coordination among other things. The demands of the White Cell make it impossible to hire actors to do the job so the small group is populated with former Ambassadors, general officers, bureaucrats, and executives with real experience in the roles they are assigned to play.
I served as the host nation’s intelligence director in the scenario which came with the difficult task of convincing senior general officers that despite their capabilities, there were limits to what they would be allowed to do in my fictional, but very sovereign, developed country. Intelligence operations are extremely sensitive matters but after years of operating freely in Afghanistan and the Sahel, most NATO officers were not used to being restricted by the host nation. Some faced an emotional adjustment to the new context and more than one lost his real job for damaging rapport with me or other White Cell role players. I became very good at defusing their impassioned arguments and showing them how to achieve success in ways acceptable to partner governments under stress.
Despite real world concerns about the Syrian border, terrorism at home, and operations against Kurdish rebels, General Öztürk handled the complex exercise scenario with great skill and wisdom. He insisted on considering the host nation’s perspective in all decisions and pushed his staff to apply comprehensive, often non-military approaches to solving problems. His staff did a number of things exceptionally well. Where they needed work, they learned and improved. He was as good as any NATO commander I had seen and represented Turkey brilliantly to the rest of the Alliance…Then came the dramatic fall.
The Ghost of Ataturk
I don’t support the attempted coup on 15 July. President Erdogan, though unhelpful in many ways, is more or less a democrat and Turkey remains a responsible partner in the international order…for now. Though he may be allowing the erosion of Turkish secularism, he is certainly not the cause of it and he is hardly an Islamic extremist. Having said that, Turkey has been a center of economic, political, and military power since before Alexander the Great but the ruling party AKP is allowing its people to be led by ideas from elsewhere rather than the other way around. This is the real tragedy of Erdogan and the reason some Turks are desperate to be rid of him.
The rest of the world has other reasons to desire a change in Turkey. Erdogan’s foreign policy has systematically alienated every single actor on Turkey’s periphery. Israel, Iraq, Iran, Assad, the Kurds, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Armenia, Greece, the European Union, and Russia all have squabbles with Turkey that vary in seriousness. The danger however, is that the convergence of their grievances on the killing fields of Syria threatens to drag them all, particularly NATO, into conflicts it does not want and is not designed for. The combat involvement of Russian troops on both sides of three NATO member states illustrates the delicacy of the situation.
The dangerous immaturity at the heart of this deterioration is a symptom of a would-be tyrant and something the world must now be vigilant against. The Turkish military, which sees itself –and is seen by the people– as the defender of Turkish secularism, had become desperately concerned about Erdogan’s growing power. Removal of Prime Minister Davutoglu in May was a victory for Erdogan and probably triggered a premature move by coup plotters that undoubtedly recognized the window was closing on the Army’s freedom to act. Failure of the coup will now allow Erdogan to purge the military of its AKP-skeptical leadership and rob it of any patriotic boldness it may have had. The emasculated Army is no longer a political obstacle and has lost its ability to invoke the ghost of Ataturk in defense of secularism. This is a threat to the very foundation of modern Turkey and if not moderated, will eventually destroy stability there taking AKP and Erdogan with it.
Despite the dire possibilities, I find my mind occupied with a more personal cause for reflection. Two months ago I was a mandarin in a game administered by Erdal Öztürk. Next month he may be executed for treason against his state. The realization gives me great concern for Turkish colleagues and casts a curious shadow on the image I have of coup plotters. In the past I considered reports of such events to be subjects for disinterested analysis; historical tidbits I consumed with the rest of the news. Whatever my feelings were about the justification for a coup d’etat, I always viewed its organizers as either dangerous political zealots or cynical opportunists. This time it’s more complicated.
General Öztürk is someone I knew and respected. I toiled and socialized with his staff. Though he and I did not have a personal connection, my colleagues and I once worked for his success as a NATO commander. We responded to his leadership and adjusted our daily efforts to accommodate his guidance. I find it difficult to view him as cynical or dangerous and it’s even harder for me to categorize his motivations in boxes with simple labels like “right-wing”, “secularist”, “militarist”, et cetera. While Öztürk’s fall has brought Turkish politics home to me in a personal way, the future under Erdogan may do so for millions of others in ways we can only imagine. Reading statements from Ankara in the days since the coup attempt, hoping for cooler heads in Turkey seems forlorn at this moment. Let’s hope I am wrong.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC