ISTANBUL: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday warned a top Turkish general who played a key role in defeating last year´s failed coup and led a cross-border operation in Syria that he must accept a surprise demotion without rancour.
In a rare show of tension between the military and Erdogan, Turkish media reported that Lieutenant General Zekai Aksakalli had wanted to resign from the armed forces after he was moved from special forces chief to a less significant position.
“There can be no such concept of disappointment in the military. Whatever task is assigned, a soldier goes and fulfils their duty there,” Erdogan said after Aksakalli was assigned as commander of the army´s 2nd Corps, based on the Gallipoli peninsula in northwestern Turkey.
Up to 10 generals including the former special forces chief were ready to resign, Hurriyet daily reported on Monday. No reason has been given for the demotion.
Hurriyet speculated there may have been “discomfort” within the military over the general´s public profile in running the Syria operation and the desire to replace him with a younger figure.
Aksakalli led the Turkish military´s cross-border “Euphrates Shield” operation launched in August last year aimed at clearing the border zone in northern Syria of both Kurdish militia fighters and the Islamic State extremist group.
“Right now, Zekai Aksakalli has completed his duty in the special forces,” Erdogan said, adding that the proposal came during a meeting of the nation´s top armed forces body on August 2.
“He will continue his work there (at the 2nd Corps),” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul before flying to Jordan.
It is hugely unusual for the Turkish president to comment on military appointments in public.
Aksakalli was promoted to lieutenant general in a meeting of the first Supreme Military Council after the July 15 2016 attempted putsch, where his actions made him a figure of national prominence.
He was praised for ordering Sergeant Omer Halisdemir to kill one of the suspected ringleaders, Brigadier General Semih Terzi, on the night of July 15.
By shooting Terzi dead outside special forces headquarters in Ankara, Halisdemir broke the putschists´ chain of command although he was subsequently killed by the plotters.
Eighteen suspects went on trial in February accused of deliberately killing Halisdemir, who has since become a national hero with public places including parks named after him.
The demotion came after a shake-up of the armed forces as Turkey replaced its land, air and naval commanders of the military during the August 2 meeting.