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Court Convictions Deal Blow to Turkey's Military

Mehmet Haberal, center, a surgeon and founder of an Ankara university, is accused of being part of an alleged ultra-nationalist and pro-secular gang called Ergenekon, Aug. 5, 2013.
The jailing of hundreds of senior Turkish army officers, including a former chief of staff, is the latest blow to NATO's second largest army. Turkey's military is facing increasing numbers of resignations, and questions are growing over the impact of the trial on its effectiveness at a time of regional instability.

On Monday, a Turkish court sentenced 19 people, including the country's former military chief and other retired military officers, to life in prison for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the government. Dozens of others also received long prison sentences.

The convictions marked the biggest crackdown on Turkey's secular military since it established the republic in 1923.

Metehan Demir is a former Turkish fighter pilot and now a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. He warns the prosecutions are now having a debilitating impact on Turkish armed forces at a critical time.

"There are some positions in Turkey where you need a four-star-general-like force commandership. Some of those positions are actually being commanded now by three- or two-star generals, because most of the four-star generals are either jailed or being tried at the courts. And Turkey has serious problems with Syria and Iran," he said.

Climate of fear in military

The impact on the Turkish armed forces is spreading a climate of fear throughout the country's military, according to Gareth Jenkins, an expert on Turkish military affairs.

"Those who aren't behind bars are looking over their shoulders, and it makes the military very reluctant to communicate with each other. They are hesitant about attending training seminars, because if they go to a training seminar maybe a couple of months later, there will be charges that those at the training seminar were planning a coup. A lot of officers are looking for early retirement," he said.

According to Turkish media, around 100 Turkish fighter pilots resigned so far this year, along with a senior air force general. Last year also saw a number of high-level resignations as a result of the ongoing judicial probes.

Still, despite these investigations, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned as "unacceptable" the arrest of former armed forces chief Ilker Basbug on charges of heading a terrorist organization.

Newspaper columnist Demir believes Erdogan has reasons to regret the court's decisions.

"He did not want so many generals to be jailed," he said. "In reality, the government needs a strong Turkish army to show its muscle to the enemies surrounding Turkey."

In response to Monday's convictions, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc stressed that the judicial process has not ended because Turkey's Supreme Court still needs to weigh in.

Observers say the government's relationship with the present chiefs of the armed forces is improving. Demir says that relationship will be important in rebuilding the armed forces.

"There is now a brilliant cooperation among the Turkish army command chain and the Turkish government, and it will take some time to see it becoming better," he said. "Otherwise there are basic steps that need to be taken to make it better."

With the situation in Syria continuing to deteriorate, Analysts say, both government officials and the members of the armed forces will be anxious to establish a strong working relationship and overcome the disruption caused by the convictions.