Subsequently, they reported that no sign of cancer was found and he was fine. I asked around and my sources told me that the media reports were rubbish and he had indeed colon cancer. His doctors felt that they had to intervene rapidly to remove some tumors.
What I found rather unusual was the visit by Vice President Joe Biden days after the surgery. He went to Erdogan's private residence in Istanbul and spent a few hours there. That is way too high level for an after-surgery-courtesy visit. To me this visit showed a great deal of concern on the part of the Americans as (according to my hypothesis) Erdogan and Turkey are critically important for their plans for the region.
Around the same time, Israeli conservative Web site Debka reported that Erdogan's cancer could be serious:
Extreme concern was quietly voiced Sunday, Dec. 18, by American and European official circles over the state of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's health – and especially its impact on present and impending events in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, including Iran, debkafile's Western intelligence sources report. Those sources say Erdogan is suffering from Rectosigmoid cancer, but were not sure if it had reached the advanced Stage TIII (spread out of the colon to regional lymph nodes).No one I asked could tell me whether his cancer metastasized or reached an advanced stage, but everyone agreed that his resting period was too long for laparoscopic surgery (which is fairly non-invasive).
If true, this would be a major issue for all the players in the Middle East. Erdogan has no heir apparent and his party is not a monolithic organization. If he becomes incapacitated or worse, there would be a power vacuum and serious infighting for his position would ensue. And none of the possible candidates could be the unifying force he has been for the AKP.
The second worrisome development is the incarceration of the former Chief of General Staff of the Turkish army. He was taken into custody on Friday in relation with the Ergenekon case. The case has been going on for almost five years and alleges that there was an ultra-nationalist conspiracy from within the Turkish army aiming to overthrow the AKP government.
In the summer, the then Chief of Joint Staff and heads of the branches of the armed forces resigned en masse symbolically to protest the handling of the Ergenekon case. I noted at the time that I was not worried about a coup d'etat. As I later explained about Egypt, the real Turkish model was to sideline the army by forcing it to choose between its economic and political interests.
This time I find the timing and the nature of the arrest rather worrisome. It is possible that the current chiefs of the armed forces could see this as a cautionary tale about getting involved in politics and decide to keep their distance from any and all debates. But they could also see it as an existential threat and might take measures to counter it.
Even if those measures do not take the form of a coup (which I still doubt) these developments might preoccupy the senior officers sufficiently to affect the normal functioning of the army. At a time when Syria is about the implode and Turkey is poised to play a critical role in the region, an army that perceives itself under threat could not be a good thing.
Color me worried.