ISTANBUL — Turkey’s leaders are prepared to use the armed forces against protesters if they consider it necessary, the deputy prime minister said Monday, raising the threat of military intervention for the first time during the current unrest, in a country that has only recently moved away from its long history of army coups.
With protesters and police continuing to skirmish in both Istanbul and the capital city of Ankara on Monday, the warning from Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc was a significant rhetorical escalation in the crackdown on anti-government demonstrations that began last month. And the assertion that the civilian government retained control of the armed forces, while not unexpected, was also notable.
“The police and security forces are in charge. If this is not enough, the gendarmerie will be in charge,” Arinc told state-run TRT television in Ankara. “And if this is still not enough . . . we can use the Turkish Armed Forces.”
Arinc was responding to a question about the use of the gendarmerie in recent days, a military-type security force that is under separate civilian command in Turkey.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken major steps in his 10 years in power to reform the military and end the possibility that it might step in during periods of civil unrest, as it did four times in the second half of the 20th century. Erdogan’s efforts were at the time supported by many of the protesters who have now taken to the streets to fight what they say is a steady erosion of personal liberties under his government. But even as he attempted to curb the military, many critics were suspicious that he was simply doing it to expand his own power.
For Erdogan’s opponents, Monday’s announcement was a ratification of that fear.
“This shows the depth of the panic, coupled with their determination to crush this movement at any cost,” said Osman Faruk Logoglu, the deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party, whose regional offices in Istanbul were vandalized on Sunday.
But one former military official said he doubted that the situation would deteriorate so much that Erdogan would actually give orders to roll out the army.
“I don’t really believe it will escalate to that situation right now,” said retired Major General Armagan Kuloglu.
Five major labor unions called a one-day strike Monday and tried to march to Taksim Square, but they were stopped by lines of riot police. Earlier in the day, the square itself had reopened, two days after security forces pushed out the two-week-old occupation in adjoining Gezi Park, which has become one of the biggest challenges during Erdogan’s time in office.
The park was still closed to the public, as swarms of workers planted new grass and dozens of trees in an apparent effort to prove the environmental bona fides of the government. Video of the new plantings were repeatedly broadcast on state-run television.
The protests were initially sparked by objections to plans to raze Gezi Park to make way for a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks that once stood on the site. After police responded on May 31 to the small group of peaceful protesters with tear gas and riot cannons, the demonstrations quickly expanded to broader complaints about restrictions on personal liberties.
With the Saturday crackdown, Istanbul’s protests – once largely confined to Taksim Square and Gezi Park — have spread across the vast city of 13 million. Doctors, lawyers and journalists have all been targeted by police forces, and Erdogan has compared people who aid protesters to terrorists.
Many neighborhoods were tense on Monday, after a night of repeated clashes with police, but Monday night was quieter, with police using tear gas and water cannons in only a few areas.
The crackdown has drawn international condemnation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday that she was “appalled, like many others,” at Turkey’s treatment of the protesters.