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Sledgehammer (Balyoz): How Turkey Averted a Coup in 2003

Dani Rodrik, the esteemed Harvard Professor of Economics, recently engaged in a high-profile effort to portray the historic Ergenekon case as a politically motivated plot skillfully contrived by the Turkey’s ruling party, AKP, and its collaborators in the country’s judiciary. At monthly intervals, Mr. Rodrik publicly denounced the thousands of pages of evidence collected by the prosecutors as fabrication, called the whole investigation as Turkey’s “other dirty war,” and finally, declared the death of Turkey’s democracy. His vehement position on the case has been printed and reprinted in respectable outlets such as Foreign PolicyThe New Republic, (co-authored with his wife Pinar Dogan) and most recently the Wall Street Journal.


Mr. Rodrik’s special interest and public outreach campaign in reference to the Ergenekon case stems from the fact that his father-in-law Cetin Dogan, a retired four-star general, along with others, were arrested in February 2010 as part of the ongoing investigation. Mr. Dogan is currently in custody awaiting trial on a number of charges including attempt to destroy Parliament and overthrow government. Mr. Rodnik’s interpretation and presentation of the case in these venues is neither unbiased nor genuinely informational. It is a plea for international attention to a high-profile case involving a relative. It is also a platform to internationalize the grievances of the current military establishment in Turkey and defame for American audience the current government as being religiously motivated. The details of the case, however, present a quite different picture and readers need to hear the true side of the story.

Ergenekon refers to the name of a clandestine organization in Turkey with ties to the members of the country’s military and security forces, aiming to foment chaos in society and lay the groundwork for an eventual military takeover. The goal of planned military takeover according to revealed documents and statements is to build a closed, ultranationalist, ultrasecularist authoritarian regime ruled by decree. The investigation of the case began after the initial discovery of a number of hand grenades hidden in a shanty house in Istanbul. The grenades were traced to a retired military officer. A subsequent investigation led to other weapons, assassination plans, coup plans, and clues to recent political murders. This was the tip of the iceberg. As the prosecutors deepened the investigation, they unearthed a clandestine network of organized crime nested in various state institutions, using the state power in order to ‘reorganize’ the state.

The group is accused of terrorism and high treason due to a number of criminal activities, such as no less than three coup plans in last 8 years, incitement of rebellion against the government, attacks on newspaper headquarters, an attack on the State Council in 2006, an assassination plot against members of high judiciary, a planned armed attack on NATO facilities in Izmir. Other charges include planned armed attacks on prominent journalists and authors including the Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, attacks on missionary groups, assassination plots against the church leaders of Turkish-Christian communities, assassination attempts against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The case is still active and so far 274 people, including several former generals, party officials and journalists have been charged since July 2008. The investigation has produced a case file of thousands of pages. Over 100 hearings were held as part the case.

Fomenting chaos to precipitate a military takeover is a tactic that has been used over and over in the history of modern Turkey, and it is not at all unique to Ergenekon. Clandestine groups that penetrated state security agencies, generally known as “the deep state” in Turkey, repeatedly used similar schemes to achieve their dirty goals. Most notorious episode in the recent history was the chaotic period that led to a coup in 1980. Late 1970s saw an enormous hike in political and sectarian violence in Turkey where not one day was passing without an assassination, killing, bombing, or an armed assault. The neighborhoods of the large cities were divided into rightist and leftist sectors, managed and supervised by militants. The author of these lines, a little boy at the time living in Ankara, vividly remembers several incidents that left indelible marks in his memory. His neighborhood post office was bombed periodically. The apartment building he resided was machine gunned several times. The college-age residents of his neighborhood were gathered in the middle of the street and beaten to hell by rival militant groups. His neighborhood convenience store owner was gunned down before his eyes as he was sent to buy bread for the dinner.

After every such incident a troop of military police were reporting to the neighborhood to provide security. It was military police and not the regular police were reporting because the city was under the martial law due to violence. It is still a mystery how all these incidents were abruptly ended the moment the armed forces took over the rule in a hazy Friday morning, on September 12, 1980. They had every opportunity to stop the violence before the full takeover but they did not. Days after the coup, hundreds of thousands of people from every political inclination were rounded up and charged. Tens of thousands of people served in prison for years. More than ten thousand people were stripped of their citizenship. Tens of thousands lost their job, put on probation, lost their passport. Hundreds were hanged. All active politicians were arrested and banned from public service. Despite all these extraordinary renditions, the perpetrators of many heinous crimes and incidents were never found or charged. Rival militants, who were detained, discovered that they were led or incited by the same dark figures. Most obvious candidates were never charged and went undercover in the subsequent years. Needless to say, most members of Ergenekon were pretty much active during the period in various capacities. Even today, in the case hearings they proudly talk about their involvement as a token of their unmatched patriotism.

The infamous Sledgehammer (Balyoz) plan allegedly drafted by Cetin Dogan in 2002, who was the 1st Army commander of the time, is perhaps the most shocking example of these attempts. To the dismay of Mr. Rodrik and his repeated attempts to portray the investigation as fabrication, there was plenty of credible evidence pointing to the elaborate preparation of series of events leading to a military takeover.

The presented evidence for the plan include presentation slides on original military CDs, video recordings, which include voice recordings of military meetings in which participants discuss a planned coup, a list of individuals to be detained during the coup, and a government plan to be put into operation after the coup. The action plan lists a chain of military and political operations leading to the coup, such as the bombing of two eminent mosques in Istanbul during Friday prayers , the downing a Turkish jet and then blaming Greece for it, expelling 800 military officers for their suspected links to the ruling party, and the subsequent detention of thousands of public servants, judges, prosecutors, community leaders, and religious preachers.

The most important evidence of the plan is the voice recordings of the meeting that took place on 3-5 March, 2003, at a military headquarters in Istanbul under the leadership of Cetin Dogan. The voice recordings of this meeting were leaked to a newspaper last January. In numerous TV appearances Mr. Dogan confirmed the authenticity of the recordings but identified the meeting as a periodic war game. In his opening speech Mr. Dogan reminds the participants that “the plan” has to correspond to the worst possible scenario. The address clearly refers to a plan that was prepared prior to the meeting. Mr. Dogan emphasizes that under the emergence of the worst case scenario the Turkish armed forces have a legal basis to intervene. The scenario, he claims, is about the domestic rather than foreign threat and significantly resembles the conditions at the time. Later, a colonel presents the scenario in vivid detail.

The scenario focuses especially on a potential religious uprising and the ways to contain this challenge. In his following comments, Mr. Dogan declares that the way to deal with such challenges is to tame the government and the parliament by coercion and threats, and to impose a national unity government. He claims that that this is the way to act and indeed he has made some suggestions to the Chief of Staff in this line. The meeting continues with presentations by other staff of vivid details about the containment and control of Istanbul region with clear references to the names of top bureaucrats, cabinet members, and the prime minister. There was no sign of a fictitious war game at all.

It is rather likely that Sledgehammer was the first coup plan devised right after AKP’s victory in the parliamentary elections on November 3, 2002. Apparently, Cetin Dogan chose the name to indicate that his plan would deal an ultimate blow to the social dynamics that brought AKP to power five years after the previous military stint in 1997. The fact that Mr. Erdogan, who was then the mayor of Istanbul and subsequently charged for sedition and served 4 months in prison, emerged as the new leader of the country must have infuriated Cetin Dogan and his fellows. I interpret the March 2003 meeting as an occasion where he could promote his plan and garner support from other top generals. The date of the meeting was ostensibly set to reflect the political commotion at the time thanks to the heated discussion of a proposal in Turkey’s Parliament to allow US troops to operate from Turkish territory in their campaign against Iraq (it was defeated by three votes). Subsequently, Chief of Navy Admiral Ozden Ornek and Chief of Air Force General Ibrahim Firtina collaborated with him. Admiral Ornek’s diaries, which were retrieved in 2007 from a computer disk intentionally formatted multiple times, describe the junta’s frustration with then-Chief of Staff Hilmi Ozkok who did not lend support to their plan. For this and other reasons, possibly leadership issues, the plan was fortunately not put in force.

But this did not end Ergenekon’s aspirations and the threat is still alive. Despite the fact that Turkish criminal justice system has done an enormous job of bringing these perpetrators to justice through a collaborative effort, some in the high judiciary shows tremendous resistance to fair and transparent trial of the group members. Intimidation of judges and prosecutors, illegal release of the suspects are frequently employed tactics; an organized domestic and international campaign aimed at manipulation and distortion of the facts is in place. Individuals whose names listed in the assassination lists live in fear.

Mr. Rodrik says that he no longer recognizes Turkey, the country where he was raised. That I agree. Turkey is not that country anymore where some condescending members of the armed forces could devise coup plans in their lunch break while sipping their coffees subsidized by the Turkish taxpayer. Justice is served when nobody, including top generals, is immune to the consequences of their action. Justice is served when hundreds of thousands of people who were victimized by the likes of Cetin Dogan are given back their dignity. The case is a milestone where active and retired members of the armed forces are brought to justice for the first time in Turkey’s history for their alleged coup plots. If the constitutional amendment package passes in the upcoming referendum in Turkey next September, it will also be possible to bring the perpetrators of the 1980 coup to justice. Thus, it seems, democracy is not dead in Turkey. It is stronger than ever.


Fevzi Bilgin

Assistant Professor of Political Science, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, mfbilgin@smcm.edu

  • January 31, 2021