By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A sacked Turkish general, wanted in connection with a failed coup attempt in July, has told Reuters in an interview that the government's purge of top commanders and pilots is inflicting deep long-term damage on the second-biggest army in NATO.
Mehmet Yalinalp, who was head of NATO's air command strategy in Germany at the time of the coup attempt, said he was fired a week later. He is one of hundreds of Turkish NATO officers to have been dismissed, some of whom have requested asylum in Europe.
"The impact is disastrous," Yalinalp said of the crackdown since the July 15 putsch, in which he denies involvement.
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"The military is weakening. We are losing our personnel because they are taken into indefinite custody," he added, referring to officers held in prison awaiting trial. "It may take years, even decades to recover."
Beyond his anger at the destruction of his career, Yalinalp said the purge had sapped morale, undermined competence and left the military without enough pilots to fly its F16 jets.
Turkish officials roundly reject such suggestions. They say the military has become more loyal and effective with the removal of rogue officers, some of whom commandeered tanks, jets and helicopters in their attempt to seize power.
Since the coup attempt, Turkey has launched a military incursion into Syria to clear Islamic State militants from its border, and stepped up its campaign against Kurdish militants in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq.
That is evidence, the officials say, that it is able to maintain its commitments to NATO and keep defending Turkey.
"The activities of the Turkish Armed Forces inside and outside our borders are being carried out without a hitch, and operations are continuing without interruption," one senior Turkish official told Reuters.
NATO, which condemned the coup attempt, considers Turkey a crucial ally in the war against Islamic State, strategically located between West and East and bordering both Syria and Iraq.
Asked about the status of Yalinalp, a second senior security official said: "There is an arrest warrant for him. He will be detained if he enters the country."
The official said the issuing of such a warrant meant that there was concrete evidence against the general, either based on the testimony of another suspect or from his usage of a smartphone messaging app believed by the authorities to have been used by the coup plotters.
Yalinalp said he was never told specifically what the accusations against him are and disputes there is any evidence against him.
According to a decree published in Turkey's Official Gazette on Aug. 1, Yalinalp was reassigned to Ankara by the defense ministry along with 43 other generals. He said other officers who returned had been arrested.
"Some of my old classmates are in custody now, generals who were on vacation at the time ... highly educated people," the 48-year-old said in an interview in Brussels. He is now applying to study for a doctorate in Germany.
Yalinalp said that while the 5,000-or-so officers purged were a fraction of Turkey's almost 400,000-strong army, they were the best educated, on whose experience the military depended. Around 150 out of roughly 360 generals have been detained since the abortive coup.
"It takes 25, 30 years to mature as a senior officer, to plan, to think and to act as a general. We can barely find enough talented people to fly our jets," he said. Turkey's 240 F16 jets now have only 200 pilots, he said.
"That is very detrimental. If you cannot fly your aircraft you are going to be weak, you are going to be incompetent."
He said soldiers still in service were receiving hate emails, suffering low morale and living in fear of arrest.
The Turkish military does not disclose its combat pilot numbers, but the air force in September made a public appeal to hundreds of former airmen to return to its depleted ranks.
A military source said this month the response had been "below expectations", but the defense ministry has launched a system to allow former combat pilots now in civil aviation to return on secondment.
Turkey has sacked or suspended more than 125,000 state officials, from soldiers and police officers to tax inspectors and judges, since the July coup attempt, drawing condemnation from Western allies and rights groups and shaking confidence in the country's democratic credentials.
President Tayyip Erdogan has rejected criticism of the purges, accusing the West of siding with coup plotters, and has suggested Turkey could become part of a security bloc dominated by NATO's Cold War foe Russia.
"If the military mindset in Turkey changes, that might mean that the axis of the country shifts from West to East, away from the United States," Yalinalp said.
'HAVE YOU RESIGNED?'
The general previously served as a senior squadron commander at the Akinci air base outside Ankara, a hub of the coup attempt. The air force played a major role in the abortive putsch, in which more than 240 people, most of them civilians, were killed.
Yalinalp was also one of a small group of senior officers to win surprise promotion in 2014, becoming brigadier general, according to military records published in the Official Gazette. He was then posted to NATO's Ramstein air base in Germany.
At least seven others in that group have been jailed pending trial on suspicion of playing key roles in the coup attempt, according to Turkish media.
But Yalinalp said his career path is no evidence of wrongdoing. He said he was having dinner near Ramstein with British and American colleagues on the night of July 15.
According to Yalinalp, the main evidence against him is a list of Turkish generals provided by coup plotters.
He said his dismissal began with a call from a lower ranking officer asking him if he had resigned. Confused, he spoke to more senior generals investigating the events of July 15.
"I told them I had nothing to do with the list, or with the coup plotters. I'm not a part of any group or illegal organization," Yalinalp said.
He said the list made no sense. "There are generals on the list accused of supporting the coup who still work in the air force, they haven't been pursued," he said.
Reuters could not independently verify this.
Yalinalp said the detention of a general posted to the Turkish embassy in Washington convinced him not to return.
The colleague, Brigadier General Yavuz Celik, accepted retirement and went back to Turkey but was soon arrested. Yalinalp doubted that generals of such experience would have been involved in the events of July 15.
"If they were pulled into a coup attempt that was doomed to fail from the beginning, they would have refused it."
(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara and Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mark Trevelyan)