Rumors and questions surround sidelining of key Turkish general
Why has the special forces commander General Zekai Aksakalli been retired since he had been so central to stopping the coup attempt against Erdogan?
A Turkish general with a background in the Special Forces, who played a key role in stopping the 2016 coup attempt, has been suddenly sidelined over the last month. “Why?” some are asking.
It comes amid a second report from Sweden at a website critical of Ankara’s policies that suggests he was involved in a conspiracy involving Qatar. In the murky world of Turkey, where there are no critical media inside its borders, and where the highest number of jailed journalists are, it’s difficult to know what is coincidence and what is conspiracy.Read More Related Articles
What is known is that former Special Forces commander General Zekai Aksakalli has been retired. Turkish commentators ask, What should be made of this?
On July 23, Turkish journalist Can Dundar, who is a well-known critic of the current regime in Ankara, suggested that Turkey was cleaning house by pushing out Aksakalli. But why, he asked, since this man had been so central to stopping the coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ahval media, which is also critical of Erdogan, noted that the Turkish leader had retired General Metin Temel and Aksakalli, who is in charge of the Second Army. They were retired in late July. There were a lack of positions to promote them to, supposedly.
This raised eyebrows. Why would loyal officers be pushed aside by a regime that wants the army reduced from its former role in politics and wants it loyal? Does Erdogan want to sideline a heroic general, or is there more to it?
What do we know about these key men? Aksakalli was at the General Staff Special Forces Command the night of the attempted coup, Ahval notes. He sent Sergeant Omer Halisdemir to “shoot putschist general Semih Terzi.”
Aksakalli also was key in operations inside Syria during Euphrates Shield in 2016, launched a month after the coup attempt. He was in battles in and around al-Bab.
Temel also was targeted by the coup plotters but survived the 2016 attempt. He was key to the invasion of Syria’s Afrin in 2018 by Turkey. So these men shaped the night of the coup and Turkey’s massive involvement in Syria. Now they are being moved out.
Ahval notes that Admiral Cihat Yayci, another key man involved in stopping the coup, was pushed aside in May. He was key to the Libya deal and Turkey’s increased involvement in Libya.
Why are all the senior Turkish soldiers who helped Erdogan in his increasing militarism in Syria and Libya being moved aside?
The Nordic Monitor website says some of the Turkish officers had revealed illicit Qatari “funding for jihadists in Syria.” According to this report, testimony by a man named Firat Alakus of the Special Forces Intelligence Division told a court hearing on March 20, 2019, that Aksakalli had “ordered the assassination of Brig.-Gen. Semih Terzi” because Terzi found out Aksakalli was working for Turkish intelligence. There were “illegal and clandestine operations in Syria for personal gain,” involved.
In this narrative, the killing of Terzi on the night of the coup was not because he was linked to the coup but merely under that pretense.
It’s difficult to know if either story is rooted in reality. That Qatar is involved in supporting Turkey is well known, because they are allies. They both support the same hard-line Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. That support doesn’t seem illicit.
However, Ankara has targeted journalists in the past for revealing Turkish support for extremist groups in northern Syria and for revealing how intelligence operations smuggled items to those groups. “Qatari support for mercenaries in Syria via Turkey” is not something that would necessarily be controversial in the halls of the AK Party leadership in Ankara. So what is the scandal?
The demotion and resignation of the navy admiral has also raised eyebrows. An Al-Monitor piece wonders whether it is part of Erdogan’s attempt to distance himself from anti-Western cliques in the Turkish navy. That would seem odd because it is Erdogan who engineered the shift from the West and NATO toward Russia, Iran and Qatar. Turkey often bashes the EU and the US. It’s hard to believe an admiral, and not the regime, caused Turkey to go into Libya.
It’s also unclear why Terzi knowing about Qatari funding would somehow have resulted in a fellow officer using the night of the coup to eliminate him. It’s not controversial that Qatar funds extremists in Syria. It’s also not controversial that Erdogan wanted to get involved in Libya after the coup attempt, largely as a way to stop Kurdish forces and give the army something to do.
Ever since 2016, Erdogan has created a crisis every month to keep the country in a national emergency, including detaining and purging some 150,000 people since the coup.
With the overall picture murky as to why two key men were retired, questions remain about whether Ankara is cleaning house of anyone who gained fame on the night of the coup to make it seem only the leadership survived the coup, or if these men know too much about that night or about other issues. Or it may just be a reward for their years of service. Rumors abound nonetheless.
By Seith J. Fratzman