There were a couple of extremely consequential stories out of Turkey toward the end of last week that I didn’t get a chance to write about with the Israeli elections going on, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity now to highlight them and comment. First was the Turkish cabinet shuffle, with the big move being the replacement of Interior Minister Idris Şahin with Muammer Güler. Şahin is about as hardline on the Kurdish issue as any Turkish government official – he referred in May to the civilians killed in December 2011’s Uludere air strike as “PKK extras” – and his sacking is important for two reasons. First, it signals that the Ocalan talks and Imralı process might actually be a real reorientation of the government’s policy and not just a ploy at running out of the clock or buying more time. Getting rid of the minister overseeing the terrorism fight who was absolutely despised by Kurdish politicians and ordinary Turkish Kurds and replacing him with someone who is likely to be a little more open to Kurdish sensitivities is an important step, and while there are concerns about Güler given his actions while governor of Istanbul, literally anyone will be an improvement over Şahin.
Furthermore, replacing Şahin with a new face in the Interior Ministry is important inasmuch as it signals a tacit admission on the government’s part that its strategy of pounding the PKK without making a real effort on the political front has been a mistake. The Imralı process also fits into this idea as well, and a new interior minister communicates a fresh start and that the old approach was not working. Prime Minister Erdoğan rarely if ever publicly admits that he was wrong, but this is as close to a public admission as you’ll see. The optics of this are important by themselves divorced from what ever actual policy emerges. By the same token, putting Ömer Çelik in the cabinet as Culture and Tourism Minister is important too as he is one of Erdoğan’s two or three closest advisers and has advocated a much more conciliatory approach than the government has adopted in the past. I expect him to be influential in the new Kurdish policy as well despite his portfolio, and his elevation to a cabinet position now is also a signal that the government has erred and that it needs to find a different formula if it wants to be successful.
The other noteworthy development last week was Erdoğan’s full about-face on the government’s assault on the military as embodied by the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) prosecutions and widespread imprisonment of officers. After crowing for years about the defanging of the armed forces and how Turkey is now coup-proof, Erdoğan acknowledged over the weekend that things have gotten out of hand and said that the detention of generals is negatively impacting the fight against terrorism. As an example of just how dire the situation is, the Turkish navy now has no full admirals left after the resignation of Admiral Nusret Güner in protest over the fact that the officers under his command have mostly been arrested. There is literally nobody to fill the positions of Navy chief and fleet commander, since all that remain are vice-admirals, and there is never any way of knowing when those officers will be arrested either. While the situation is the worst in the navy, the other services are not in great shape either and have been decimated by arrests. Erdoğan now seems to realize just how out of control things have gotten, but the damage has already been done and there is no quick fix for the low army morale or the military’s readiness level. Like with the Kurdish issue, however, this is a very public admission that policy needs to change, and like the moves on the Kurdish front, this should be applauded.
While both of these developments were undoubtedly positive ones, there is some political maneuvering involved as well. As I wrote last week, the backtrack on the Kurdish policy has to be seen in context of Erdoğan’s desire to get his new constitution through the Grand National Assembly, and it seems even more clear now that he is going to turn to the BDP for support. The cabinet shuffle is all part of this longer view, and so the nakedly political angle to all of this should not be ignored. On the military issue, it’s difficult for me not to view it partially as a broadside against the Gülenists, who have lately turned on Erdoğan and the AKP. The military prosecutions have been driven by Gülenist prosecutors and judges, and when Erdoğan calls on the courts to either hand down verdicts or release the imprisoned officers, and even casts doubts on whether the accused were ever part of a conspiracy at all, you have to consider why he has suddenly decided that the Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations are a net negative rather than a net positive. There is little doubt in my mind that Erdoğan’s new position is the correct one as a matter of policy, since the government cannot be in the business of holding people on trumped up charges indefinitely – not to mention the side effect of making it far more difficult for the Turkish military to operate – but there is also an element of score settling here, with Erdoğan laying the groundwork for a possible public push against the Gülenists and the cemaat down the road. Whatever the case, it looks like from a policy perspective, 2013 is going to look a lot different than 2012 did in Turkey.