ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey appointed new military commanders on Saturday in an overhaul of its top ranks that underlined the government’s control over armed forces which once dominated political life.
NATO’s second largest army is facing multiple challenges as conflict in neighboring Syria spills across the border and a peace process with Kurdish militants looks increasingly fragile.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who chaired the Supreme Military Council meeting, has eroded the army’s power since his Islamist-rooted AK Party first came to power in 2002. The secularist military staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pushed the first Islamist-led government out of office in 1997.
The council decides on promotions and retirements of top officers every year at its three-day August meeting and had been expected to make major changes at this week’s gathering.
The forced retirement of paramilitary gendarmerie force commander General Bekir Kalyoncu, who had been the leading candidate to take over land forces, was the most unexpected of the Council’s decisions.
Media reports said Ankara was opposed to Kalyoncu leading the country’s land forces as he was regarded as a government critic and his name had cropped up in testimony in the trial of the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy against Erdogan’s government. A verdict on that trial is scheduled for Monday.
Instead, General Hulusi Akar was given the job and, according to custom, would be expected to replace General Necdet Ozel as overall armed forces head in 2015.
The General Staff also announced on its website the appointment of Vice-Admiral Bulent Bostanoglu as commander of the navy, Lieutenant General Akin Ozturk as head of the air force and General Servet Yoruk as commander of the gendarmerie.
The Council’s decisions were announced after approval by President Abdullah Gul.
Two years ago, a major upheaval in the military - when the chief of staff and three other generals quit - allowed Erdogan to install a chief of staff of his choice, General Ozel, and relations between government and military have since improved.
A series of judicial investigations of military officers have undermined morale in the Turkish armed forces in recent years.
Last September, a Turkish court sentenced more than 300 military officers to jail for plotting to overthrow Erdogan almost a decade ago in the so-called Sledgehammer plot.
Among defendants facing a verdict in the Ergenekon trial on Monday is retired General Ilker Basbug, chief of staff between 2008 to 2010, who is accused of being among the leaders of what was prosecutors say is a shadowy arch-nationalist group.
Editing by Louise Ireland