The number two among the top Turkish brass personally went after a high-ranking military officer who criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over his government’s counterterrorism policies and for dismantling a peace process intended to resolve the country’s Kurdish problem, an internal memo has shown.
According to the memo Yaşar Güler, the then-deputy chief of general staff, ordered his men to dig up dirt on Lt. Col. Mehmet Alkan, who had criticized the government during the funeral of his younger brother, Capt. Ali Alkan, who died from injuries sustained in a terrorist attack on August 21, 2015. His comments, caught on film and picked up by national dailies and TV networks, generated much sympathy as many blamed the government for allowing the bloodshed continue in Turkey’s three-decades-long campaign against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU.
Erdoğan, reeling from a setback in a national election a month earlier that caused his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to lose its majority in Parliament for the first time in 13 years, asked his loyalist general Güler to punish Lt. Col. Alkan and shut him up. Alkan accused the Erdoğan government of dismantling the settlement talks with the outlawed PKK as well as allowing the militants to stockpile arms and ammunition in city centers during the settlement talks, posing a threat to public order and security.
The memo, which detailed the administrative proceedings launched against Lt. Col. Alkan, included medical reports from doctor visits, and Gen. Güler made notations next to some of the reports, asking for further investigation into his background. In one note he wrote that 45 days of sick leave on a doctor’s report for a broken left hand seemed suspicious and asked his subordinates to bring an expert to explain to him what it meant. In another notation next to a line that showed Alkan took a one-month leave of absence for depression following the recommendation of a team of specialists at the GATA military hospital, Güler wrote: “What is this? Who were the doctors that issued this report?”
The memo was written on May 28, 2016, and Güler’s notations were later conveyed to the relevant department as General Staff directives. Alkan was subsequently purged from the military along with thousands of officers in the aftermath of a failed coup that many believed had been a false flag operation for the purposes of transforming the Turkish military into a hotbed of nationalist zealots and political Islamists. Alkan had nothing to do with the coup but was targeted for his earlier criticism of the Erdoğan government. He was even indicted on terrorism charges for his alleged links to government critic the Gülen movement, a charge he said lacked any evidence and was based on an anonymous witness statement.
Alkan was subjected to fresh probes after he repeated his criticism of the Erdoğan government in May 2016. The memo indicates that an administrative commission was formed in the Gendarmerie General Command at the request of the General Staff and that he might face two disciplinary actions over his remarks.
Alkan’s treatment for short-term depression due to his baby brother’s unexpected death did not look suspicious at all; yet Guler made his medical records into an issue for going after an officer whose remarks had irritated Erdoğan. Alkan’s brother was injured when PKK militants attacked a gendarmerie station in the Beytüşşebap district of Şırnak province with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. He succumbed to his wounds the next day. Lt. Col. Alkan’s comments came during the funeral ceremony held on August 23, 2015 at the Osmaniye Büyük Mosque. AKP provincial head Hamza Tor and AKP Osmaniye deputies Suat Önal and Mücahit Durmuşoğlu were also present at the funeral, sparking protests from the relatives of the slain soldier.
Lt. Col. Alkan refused to pray for his slain brother at the same mosque as the AKP deputies, saying: “My brother has died. I will take my brother from this place where these looters are. I will take him to the regimental command.” “A son of this land, 32 years old, hasn’t had enough time in this land, in this world, with his loved ones. Who is the murderer? Who is the cause of this? Why do those who talked about ‘peace’ up until today now say, ‘War until the end’? Instead of those soldiers, let them [the politicians] fight against the PKK,” the elder brother of the slain captain said. An uproar erupted following the reactions to the AKP officials at the funeral. The provincial mufti attempted to start the prayers as Alkan criticized the timing of the war with the PKK but was unable to continue given the chaos.
On August 24, 2015, the Gendarmerie General Command (JGK) launched the first disciplinary proceeding against Alkan and issued a warning as punishment for his remarks. The Turkish military went no further than that after an outpouring of support for Alkan from politicians, civil society groups and social media users. As a part of the support campaign, Twitter users created the hashtag #YarbayMehmetYalnızDeğildir (Lt. Col. Mehmet is not alone), and thousands of Twitter users declared their solidarity with Alkan and said how proud they were of Alkan for being so courageous in expressing the opinion of many people regarding the government’s inconsistent policy on the PKK, after having left the negotiating table.
Following the June 7, 2015 general election, not only did the AKP lose its majority in parliament, but the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) also passed the 10 percent electoral threshold, winning 80 seats in the legislature. This led to the collapse of the Kurdish settlement process that was launched in 2011 to resolve the country’s decades-old Kurdish problem, which has seen Kurds’ cultural and political rights not recognized by the state as equal to those of other ethnic groups. Lt. Col. Alkan was simply criticizing the government’s unexpected and abrupt policy change on the Kurdish settlement process, which he argued had led to the PKK killing many military officers, including his brother, for the sake of the AKP’s political ambitions, such as an early election on Nov. 1, 2015, which secured more votes for Erdoğan’s single-party rule.
“Those who previously defended the settlement process [with the PKK] abandoned this policy and took sides with the fight against the PKK by waging war. Those who sit safely in their palaces [a reference to President Erdoğan’s presidential palace, dubbed AK Saray] with the protection of dozens of bodyguards and those who ride in armored cars cannot mention being a martyr and cannot praise being a martyr,” Alkan said.
At the time then-pro-Kurdish HDP Co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş called on the PKK to end its violent campaign against Turkish security forces without any preconditions in order to restore peace in the country, but his call fell on deaf ears on in the militant group. Speaking at an HDP event in İzmir, Demirtaş called on the PKK to lay down its arms, saying: “There is no place for guns in the struggle for democracy, and no excuse can be found to justify the use of violence as a method for acquiring rights in a democracy. Those offenses and faults committed by the AKP cannot be brought to justice by killing security forces. … Peace should be restored as quickly as possible before more Kurds, Turks, soldiers, militants and police officers are killed. It should be without a ‘but’ or a ‘however’,” he remarked. Demirtaş was later jailed on orders from Erdoğan and has been in prison ever since.
It appears Gen. Güler did not let the 2015 incident go after Alkan received only a warning for his remarks. He wanted a more severe punishment for him. Using the failed coup as a pretext, Güler listed him as a putschist and a terrorist and dismissed him from the military. For his services, Erdoğan rewarded Güler by promoting him to chief of general staff. Alkan, wrongfully dismissed after his long military service, joined the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in 2017 to continue expressing his criticism of the Erdoğan government.