Why Erdogan Would Benefit from Bashar al-Assad’s Fall?

15. 3. 2017

Turkish intelligence services play a key role in arming certain Syrian opposition groups.

Towards the end of World War I, as the “sick man of Europe” (the Ottoman Empire) began to disintegrate and several countries failed in their ambition to dismantle Anatolia, the confident new state that arose from the ruins of the old empire not only managed to consolidate rapidly in the course of the struggle for a new Turkey but was also able to effectively fend off threats to its territorial integrity. Seeking a strictly secular Turkey, in order to cut off the country from its Ottoman past the country’s founder, General Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk (the Father of the Turks), took a number of steps that effected a fundamental change in the country. The army took on the role of the bearer of Atatürk’s values, watching over any expressions of excessive religious zeal and Islam’s intrusions into the sphere of politics, which it played down not only in the founder’s lifetime but even more so in the decades following his death, not shrinking from carrying out purges in its own ranks, extrajudicial executions and even a military coup.

The year 2002 might be considered a milestone in the monumental ideological clash between the country‘s secular and Islamic course. This was the year that brought to power Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has since subjected Turkey to a single-minded process of Islamization, surrounding himself with his faithful followers, men who champion his conservative Islamist agenda. Turkey’s endeavor to join the EU has provided Erdogan with an additional effective way of limiting the role of the Turkish army under the ruse of democratization. Lately the Turkish army has suffered a devastating blow in the show trials of Turkish officers who had allegedly planned a coup. This developments are also tellingly illustrated by the enormous ‘Ergenekon’ or ‚Bayloz‘ (Sledgehammer) affairs, in which hundreds of Turkish officers and others have been accused of plotting against the state. Most recently, on 21st of September 2012, 324 soldiers were sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from 13 to 20 years, for a plot aiming to overthrow the current Turkish leadership. Three officers—former chief commanders in the air force, navy and the so-called First Army (charged with guarding Turkey’s western frontier)—have been sentenced to 20 years‘ imprisonment.

A Turkish Mukhabarat

The National Intelligence Agency, generally known by its acronym MIT (Milli Istihbarat Teşkilati), has evidently taken on the role of enforcing the ambitious Prime Minister Erdogan’s political agenda. The present-day MIT bears some similarity to the Arab mukhabarats, i.e. agencies that serve authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. This is because, besides classic intelligence work in the Western sense, this type of intelligence agency is also invested with police authority, thus deserving the lay term “secret police.” Engaged in both intelligence and counter-intelligence activities, it is a civilian colossus that combines activities that in other countries are normally carried out by two distinct agencies. Reporting directly to the Prime Minister’s office, MIT presents itself as a dynamic and modern intelligence service, on a par with the elite of the global intelligence community and commanding unique knowledge and skills. Its current annual budget is around 400 million USD.

Since taking over as the new head of MIT in 2010, Hakan Fidan, an old confidant of Prime Minister Erdogan (and these days a de facto puppet in the hands of the Islamist elites), has embarked on a fierce campaign in an attempt to cleanse the organization of anti-Islamic elements that had allegedly found a “haven” in MIT. Fidal has appointed two former diplomats—Ismail Hakki Musa (Fidan’s “acquaintance” from his NATO days in Brussels) and Abdulrahman Bilgic (a former Ambassador to Japan)—as his deputies. Fidan has earned the strong support of both Prime Minister Erdogan as well as Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül with his anti-Israeli policy, his campaign against the secular elements in the Turkish army, passionate opposition to the Kurdish Workers‘ Party PKK, and, last but not least, his loyalty.

The purges in the MIT ranks have been accompanied by a number of abuses, the most egregious probably relating to the head of MIT‘s Afghan branch, Kaşif Kozinoglu. Kozinoglu, a former special forces major and Central Asia specialist, who had in all likelihood served as the head of MIT‘s entire Asia desk, was arrested in March 2011 on arrival from Kabul, and charged with conspiring against the country. He was due to testify in court in November 2011 but died a few days earlier in detention, allegedly of a heart attack. His death caused a great uproar, especially among the opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Erdogan. In early 2011 another opponent of Fidan—or rather, Erdogan— Afet Güneş, who had a chance to become the first woman in history in charge of the Turkish intelligence service, was also forced out.

The War in Syria

The list of Turkish intelligence services‘ priorities is topped by the difficult neighbors on Turkey’s southern and eastern borders: Iraq, Iran and Syria. Over the past decades, there have been many ups and downs in the relations with Syria, from open hostility through loudly proclaimed cooperation, and—since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011— back to more or less open animosity. In addition, particularly since the 1980s, relations between the two countries have been encumbered by a dispute over the water of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, divergent political systems, as well as Syrian support for PKK’s Kurdish separatists. In 1998, the rows between Syria and Turkey came to a head with Turkey openly threatening to invade Syria. A frightened Syria expelled the PKK leader from its territory, denounced its support for the PKK and gradually established friendly political, economic and indeed military relations with Turkey. This trend was symbolically cemented when the Syrian President spent a vacation in Turkey jointly with the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogăn and his wife.

The first cracks in the relations between the two countries appeared in 2011, following Turkey‘s criticism of the Syrian regime for its response to the military uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s and his regime. Turkey has hosted large numbers of Syrian refugees as well as armed opposition groups, more or less openly rooting for the fall of the Syrian regime. Quite understandably, the Turkish intelligence services have been extremely busy monitoring the Syrian opposition, debriefing defectors from the Syrian army, and so on. Since the nature of a (new) Syrian regime is obviously of utmost importance to Turkey, the intelligence service has played a key role in arming certain Syrian opposition groups.

The rivalry between the MIT and the Syrian mukhabarat has resulted in kidnappings, murders, executions and disinformation. In August 2011, in a particularly humiliating incident, Colonel Hussein Harmoush, a founder of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was abducted from Turkey by Syrian intelligence operative, who had bribed an MIT officer, allegedly paying him 100,000 USD in fake banknotes. In January 2012 Harmoush was executed by firing squad on the outskirts of Damascus.

The war in Syria has turned into an ever-increasing burden to Turkey, and not only because of the refugees, likely to number around 200,000. It has also pitted Turkey against both the regime in Damascus and also the leadership of Iran. Turkey and Iran are currently engaged in an undeclared “war” for the dominance not only of the Middle East but also for influence in the wider Muslim world. This means, ironically, that two non-Arab states and with two different models of state organization have been vying for influence in the Arab world, the choice being between a more secular Sunni Turkey and a religiously far more conservative Shia Iran.

The kurdish Problem

The activities of the Turkish PKK provide a further telling example of the deteriorating relations between Turkey and Iran. Kurdish separatists have stepped up their activities in 2012, presumably also thanks to indirect support from Iran, as a result of Iranian intelligence no longer reaching Turkey. The PKK’s new confidence is reflected in a number of events, for example the 2010 assault on the army garrison in Şemdinli, to which Prime Minister Erdogan responded by threatening to “drown” PKK fighters “in their own blood”. Nevertheless, the Turkish leadership has since been floundering.

Some claim that in fighting the PKK, Turkey may have been harmed by its lack of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), previously supplied by Israel. Although Turkey could easily have acquired drones from the US, it has not done so, presumably to avoid jeopardizing relations with Iran further. The admission by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülenç Arinç of cooperation between MIT and Iran’s main intelligence agency, VEVAK, was a bit of a cold shower to many, since the Turkish intelligence service may also have shared with their Iranian colleagues information received from the Americans. Now, a few months after the Turks’ admission, it seems that MIT is trying to feed the media (among others) information suggesting that contacts between Turkish and Iranian intelligence personnel have been reduced to a minimum, citing quite plausibly the rift between the two countries over Syria as a reason.

At this point Erdogan would clearly benefit from Bashar al-Assad’s fall and from an end of the current deadlock in which MIT or rather Turkey is becoming increasingly entangled. In fact, it seems that Turkey can no longer backtrack if it is to maintain its position as a strong partner (or better, patron) of the Arab world and continue striving for dominance in the Middle East.

Tomáš Raděj

Tomáš Raděj is an Arabist. He teaches at Masaryk University in Brno, and has served as the Czech Republic’s consul in Baghdad.

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