The move marks the end of an era during which top military commanders saw themselves as self-appointed guardians of the regime against the democratically elected governments in Turkey. Özel's first message reinforced his earlier convictions that the military should stay out of politics and operate within laws and regulations.
The fact that new Chief of General Staff Gen. Özel has shied away from interfering with politics throughout his career gives much hope for the reform of the Turkish military in the direction of full civilian control of the armed forces. He has remained within the boundaries of the law and acted with the responsibility of respecting the rule of law.
Last year during a handover ceremony held at the 2nd Army Corps headquarters in Malatya, Özel highlighted respect for human rights and the law as he handed over his post to Gen. Servet Yörük, while underlining the importance of staying within the boundaries of the law in counterterrorism efforts.
“The balance between security needs and human rights should be well established. When it comes to human rights, the rights of those who were victimized or likely to be victimized by terrorism should not be ignored,” he said. Stressing that during his term the army conducted its counterterrorism efforts within the boundaries of the law, Gen. Özel added: “We have never allowed any illegal activity. We seriously investigated every claim the media put forth and we informed the relevant authorities. In other words, we have never glossed over anything.”
In his farewell statement issued to the gendarmerie before taking over the command of the land forces over the weekend, Özel confirmed similar things, saying the gendarmerie acted with respect for the law.
Whether it was sheer luck or not, the 61-year-old commander stayed clear of both the 1970 and 1980 military interventions as he was a new graduate when the first happened and a low-ranking staff officer in a Turkish division stationed in northern Cyprus in 1980. His name was not at the forefront in the extraordinary 1990s, during which the military forced the coalition government to resign in a postmodern coup and imposed undemocratic changes on the new government.
People who know him say he is a strictly professional army man with “strong democratic credentials.” Namık Çınar, his schoolmate from military college, describes him as an accomplished, hard-working student. Though his father was also an officer in the military academy, Özel did not profit from favoritism and worked really hard to get to where he is now, Çınar recalls. He says Özel has never involved himself in the political controversies and limited himself to be a “perfect professional soldier.” He claims Özel may very well be the harbinger of a new era in the Turkish military as respectful of civilian authority and accountable to the law.
If there is any, the only shortcoming of Özel, some say, is that he has never served in NATO structures or received any training in the United States, unlike many of his colleagues. With the exception of former Chief of General Staff Gen. İsmail Hakkı Karadayı, who served as the army chief between 1994 and 1998, all top commanders in Turkey have served in NATO. Özel would be the second chief of General Staff not to have served in NATO. But others say that will not be a major hurdle as he is a professional officer who wants to play by the book. Özel will command the second-largest army in the 27-member NATO alliance and will be responsible for overseeing operations from Afghanistan to Lebanon, where Turkish troops contribute to peace-keeping tasks. He speaks English.
Özel believes that Turkey should keep a strong army in a very turbulent region. In a speech he delivered in 2004 as 7th Army commander, he said: “There are new plans being developed for the energy resources in the Middle East and the Caucasus. Therefore, strong Turkish Armed Forces are needed to contribute to shaping Turkish foreign policy.”
Expert on fighting terrorism
Özel has experience with fighting terrorism. In 2003, he was the commander of the 7th Army Corps, based in the predominantly Kurdish region of Diyarbakır, directing operations and logistics for army operations extending into northern Iraq. He was credited with very good coordination with the civilian authorities in the region, especially with the Diyarbakır Governor's Office. He later became deputy commander of the Land Forces' Education and Doctrine Command (EDOK) in Ankara, where he revamped the training of commando and land mines detection units who were later sent to the troubled Southeast. He especially championed the idea of enhancing air attacks and defense capabilities for the land forces.
When he became the gendarmerie commander, he put his ideas into action. He also drew up plans for the possible reassignments and appointments of officers to Turkey's terror-stricken East and Southeast. In his pocket, he has the reshuffled list for 13 critical units in the southeastern provinces, including ranger brigades in Siirt, Tunceli and Hakkari. Now that he will be the top dog of the military, he may instruct his deputies to implement plans he has long nurtured.
Özel dodged the bullet last year when former Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ tried to block his promotion by insisting on the appointment of then 1st Army Corps Commander Hasan Iğsız as Land Forces commander. The move would have retired Özel before becoming the top commander. However, the plan was foiled when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blocked the promotion of Iğsız, who was later forced to retire. Had everything gone as planned, Özel would have been appointed head of the Land Forces Command, where he was to serve for two years. According to prior military practice, he was expected to replace Gen. Koşaner, Turkey's new military chief, in 2013. But the resignation of Koşaner advanced his career, becoming the top man in the military two years earlier than planned.
Analysts also give credit to Gen. Özel for the trouble-free election campaign period in this year's parliamentary elections in the Southeast, where the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) wages terror. Following leaks to the Turkish media, a series of security flaws were uncovered, apparently plotted by some generals to hurt the popular Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in Turkey. Özel had warned commanders in the Southeast that they should increase security precautions during the election campaigns of politicians in the area.
Özel's gendarmerie teams in Nusaybin also foiled an assassination attempt against Prime Minister Erdoğan on the eve of the June 12 elections this year. According to the plan, explosives were placed under a bridge along a highway leading to Şırnak over which Prime Minister Erdoğan's convoy was expected to pass on May 24 during his election campaign. The bomb triggering mechanism was protected against electronic jamming and was to be detonated by remote control at the end of a 5.5-kilometer-long cable.
Another incident helped Özel to garner the government's support. Complying with Erdoğan's direct orders, Özel did not hesitate to remove the gendarmerie commander in Artvin, Col. Mehmet Nasif, and District Gendarmerie Commander Cpt. Halit Çalmuk, who apparently ignored orders by Governor Mustafa Yemlihanoğlu to intervene in the attacks on Prime Minister Erdoğan's election convoy by a group of violent protestors on May 31. A police officer was critically injured after falling from the top of the prime minister's campaign bus after being hit by a stone hurled by an angry protester in Artvin's Hopa district. Gendarmerie forces in Hopa were photographed passively watching as masked demonstrators threw stones at the police during clashes. The gendarmes came to the area to assist the police force against the protestors and have received mounting criticism for failing or refusing to do so.
Özel's appointment may also solve the ongoing lack of coordination among different branches of the government in terms of intelligence sharing. The government long blamed the General Staff for withholding crucial intelligence in its possession on the activities of the terrorist PKK in northern Iraq with other security agencies of the government. There was a huge public outcry in 2009 when two Turkish military outposts were attacked by the PKK in Dağlıca and Aktütün -- both districts in Hakkari province. Allegations arose after both attacks that the military had failed to act on intelligence transmitted by Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), as well as the US U2 spy planes and from other units to prevent the attacks. Özel is expected to agree on establishing the necessary infrastructure to break the military's unwillingness to share intelligence with the two other government security offices.
Alarmed by the falling reputation of the Turkish military over deaths of soldiers amid allegations of cover-ups over questionable incidents, Özel, as gendarmerie general commander, launched a new program last year to relieve the suffering of families of soldiers killed in action. According to the new program, family members were taken to the scene of their son's death and informed in detail about what happened. Özel differed from other force commanders in that the measure was only available for the gendarmerie while other force divisions failed to take a similar action. The practice was first put into action on Dec. 23 in Hakkari, where the family of Murat Kaya, who died as result of an accident on Nov. 22, 2010, met with soldiers and eyewitnesses working at the outpost as well as with the military prosecutor. Even though going to the scene was emotionally difficult, the family was very happy with the new measure.
Özel also gives hope to Turkey's continuing democratization process in the expansion of Kurdish rights. While he was the commander of the 2nd Army Corps headquarters in Malatya between 2008-2010, Prime Minister Erdoğan dropped by Malatya to make the case for the Kurdish initiative around the time when the government announced the initiative in 2009. Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ made it clear that the military was not comfortable with the initiative. Yet, when asked by reporters about what he would say to the prime minister during the meeting, Özel simply said, “I would only be honored by Erdoğan's visit.” He did not embroil himself in the political controversy.
Just like many generals in the Turkish army, Gen. Özel is also a product of the old school military education system, but has shown strong signs of flexibility in adapting to new changes and dynamics in Turkey. Which one will prevail during his tenure as chief of General Staff, only time will tell.