Analysis: The real danger in Syria is not ISIS, but a war between major powers

Vladimir PutinThere are many unpredictable aspects of the Syrian conflict, but the downing of the Russian bomber by Turkish jets on Tuesday was not one of them. Indeed, given the simultaneous military campaigns taking place in a relatively small swath of territory by Russian, American, French, Syrian, Iranian, and other forces, it is surprising that such an incident did not happen earlier. Nevertheless, the downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 by Turkish jets marked the first attack on a Russian fighter aircraft by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member state since 1953. Although this incident is not by itself sufficient to provoke an armed conflict between Turkey and Russia, it illustrates the main danger confronting the world in Syria: namely a conflagration between regional powers, many of which are armed with nuclear weapons.

In response to earlier incidents, Turkey had warned the Russian Air Force that it would not tolerate further violations of its air space by Russian jets conducting an air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The message delivered to the Russian ambassador in Ankara was that Turkish pilots would be ordered to open fire next time. That was precisely what happened on Tuesday, when a Turkish F-16 jet brought down a Russian bomber aircraft with a single missile strike. By most accounts, the Russian airplane was barely two miles inside Turkish airspace, presented no immediate threat to Turkey’s national security, and would probably have returned to Syrian airspace within seconds. But that did not stop the Turkish F-16 from shooting down the Russian plane. Adding injury to insult, Turkish-backed rebels on the Syrian side of the border shot dead one of the plane’s two Russian pilots and opened fire on a Russian rescue team that tried to save the crew, killing at least one marine.

Rather expectedly, a visibly furious Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is not used to being challenged militarily, described the incident as “a stab in the back” by “accomplices to terrorists”, and warned Ankara of “serious consequences”. But why would Turkey provoke Russia in such a direct way? Like every other country involved directly or indirectly in the Syrian Civil War, Turkey and Russia wish to see the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Q Quotedestroyed. But they differ drastically on what should follow. The Kremlin is adamant that President al-Assad, whom it considers its strongest ally in the Middle East, should remain in power. The Turks, on the other hand, view the Syrian president as an existential threat, due to his support for Kurdish militancy throughout the region.

The roots of the animosity between the Turkish state and the al-Assad regime go back to 1978, when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was established in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which was at the time occupied by Syria. The PKK is a Marxist militant organization that seeks to establish a Kurdish homeland in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. The group was actively trained, funded, armed and protected by Syria and the Soviet Union. The latter was actively interested in destabilizing Turkey, a NATO member, while Syria used the PKK to exercise pressure on its northern neighbor, with whom it was embroiled in a series of complex land- and water-rights disputes. In 1998, the al-Assad regime was forced to expel PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who was living in Damascus under Syrian protection, after Turkey threatened an all-out war if the Syrian intelligence services continued to shelter the PKK leadership.

Ankara saw the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 as an opportunity to get rid of the al-Assad regime, which it sees as a primary threat to regional stability. Along with the United States, Turkey has been funding, arming and training a host of Syrian rebel groups, while at the same time hosting over 2 million refugees from Syria. The subsequent rise of ISIS alarmed America and its Western allies; but in the eyes of Ankara, ISIS pales into insignificance in comparison to the resurgence of Kurdish nationalism, which has been fueled by the demise of Ba’ath in Iraq and the fragmentation of Syria. For Turkey, Kurdish separatism poses an existential threat to the survival of the Turkish Republic, and is the primary reason for its involvement in the Syrian conflict.

It follows that Russia’s entry in the Syrian Civil War strengthens President al-Assad and the PKK, and is thus regarded by Turkey as a direct threat to its national security. Ankara is also concerned about France’s efforts to build a broad anti-ISIS alliance that includes Russia, and fears that the West is now openly flirting with the possibility of allowing al-Assad to stay in power in Damascus. The deliberate downing of the Russian airplane, which was undoubtedly authorized by the most senior levels of government in Ankara, was aimed at disrupting France’s efforts to build an anti-ISIS coalition, while at the same time pushing back against Russia’s regional ambitions.

What will happen next? Theoretically, Turkey could invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which would compel member-states to rush to its assistance. In reality, however, such an eventuality is remote, especially given the expressed willingness of Western leaders to help deescalate the Turkish-Russian row. Following their closed-door meeting on Tuesday, French President FrancoisQ Quote Hollande and his American counterpart Barack Obama went out of their way to avoid mentioning the Russian plane incident, and briefly commented on it only after they were asked to do so by reporters. This does not mean that Russia will not respond; but it will most likely do so behind the scenes, probably by increasing its support for the PKK and other Kurdish separatist groups.

The downing of the Russian bomber highlights the immense contradictions and complica- tions that plague the anti-ISIS forces involved in the Syrian Civil War. It is clear that ISIS is now in a position to attack targets that are located far from its territory in Syria and Iraq, or in its wilayah (provinces) in Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere. However, the threat that ISIS currently poses to international peace and stability is at most marginal and symbolic. Of far more importance to the security of the world is the possibility of an armed conflagration between regional powers, which are being drawn into Syria by the vacuum created by the civil war. All of these regional powers, including Turkey, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, and the US, are heavily armed, many with nuclear weapons. Moreover, they radically disagree on what a post-ISIS Middle East should look like.

The possibility of a serious conflagration between heavily armed regional actors will be removed only if and when the Syrian Civil War ends, even if that results in the loss of land to the so-called Islamic State. That must be the immediate goal of the Combined Joint Task Force and every other regional actor that wishes to see the end of ISIS. It is only after peace has been achieved in Syria that ISIS can be dealt with effectively.

NATO missile system hacked remotely by ‘foreign source’

MIM-104 Patriot missile systemA Patriot missile system stationed in Turkey by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was allegedly hacked by a remote source, according to reports. German magazine Behörden Spiegel said this week that the hacked missile system is owned and operated by the German Army. It was deployed along the Turkish-Syrian border in early 2013, after Ankara requested NATO assistance in protecting its territory from a possible spillover of the civil war in neighboring Syria.

The Patriot surface-to-air missile system was initially built for the United States Army by American defense contractor Raytheon in the 1980s, but has since been sold to many of Washington’s NATO allies, including Germany. The Patriot system consists of stand-alone batteries, each composed of six launchers and two radars. The radars, which are aimed at spotting and targeting incoming missiles, communicate with the launchers via a computer system. The latter was hijacked for a brief period of time by an unidentified hacker, said Behörden Spiegel, adding that the perpetrators of the electronic attack managed to get the missile system to “perform inexplicable commands”. The magazine gave no further details.

Access to the Patriot missile system could theoretically be gained through the computer link that connects the missiles with the battery’s control system, or through the computer chip that guides the missiles once they are launched. Hacking any one of these nodes could potentially allow a perpetrator to disable the system’s interception capabilities by disorienting its radars. Alternatively, a hacker could hypothetically prompt the system to fire its missiles at an unauthorized target. According to Behörden Spiegel, the attack on the missile system could not have come about by accident; it was a concentrated effort aimed at either taking control of the missiles or compromising the battery’s operating system. Moreover, the sophisticated nature of such an attack on a well-protected military system presupposes the availability of infrastructural and monetary resources that only nation-states possess, said the magazine.

Shortly after the Behörden Spiegel article was published, the German Federal Ministry of Defense denied that Patriot missile systems under its command could be hacked. A Ministry spokesman told German newspaper Die Welt that the Ministry was not aware of any such incident having taken place in Turkey or elsewhere.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 July 2015 | Permalink:

Turkish general claims CIA ‘may have had role’ in 2003 coup plot

A Turkish former four-star general, who was jailed for his role in an alleged coup plot by secularists in the Turkish military, has alleged in an interview that the United States may have advised the coup plotters. Bilgin Balanli was the only active-duty four-star general to be charged in connection with the so-called Balyoz Harekâti (Operation SLEDGEHAMMER) coup-plot case. The alleged plot became widely known in early 2010, when Taraf, a liberal Turkish daily, published documents from 2003 that outlined the plotters’ plans for a military takeover of government. According to Taraf, the conspirators were secularists within the ranks of Turkey’s military and intelligence agencies, who were opposed to the rule of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The documents outlined plans to bomb two mosques in Istanbul and bring down a Turkish fighter jet over the Aegean Sea, which would be blamed on Greece. The plotters hoped that the ensuing crisis would permit the military to assume power in the country. The AKP-led government reacted swiftly: on February 21, 2010, police operations took place in nearly a dozen Turkish provinces, leading to the arrests of over 40 leading coup plotters. Another 325 were charged in the following days. The alleged plotters argued that Operation SLEDGEHAMMER was simply an exercise that had been conceived as a scenario-based simulation for a military seminar. But the courts rejected their argument and sentenced nearly 300 of the accused to prison terms ranging from a few months to several years. More recently, however, most of those sentenced were released pending retrials. Many were acquitted last month on grounds that their civil rights had been violated during their initial trial.

Among those acquitted was General Balanli, who was about to be promoted to Chief of Staff for the Turkish Air Force when he was arrested in connection to SLEDGEHAMMER in 2010. His conviction meant that he had to resign from his post and relinquish his state pension. In his first lengthy interview since his acquittal, Balanli said he believes many of the coup planning documents had been authored by a non-Turkish intelligence agency, probably the US Central Intelligence Agency. Balanli was referring to allegations, made by many of the accused during the SLEDGEHAMMER trials, that an American senator had provided some of the coup planning documents, with the help of a retired Turkish military officer based in Istanbul. According to Balanli, much of the terminology and phraseology found in the plot documents was clearly not written by Turkish-language speakers. For example, said Balanli, the Turkish-language documents used the term “ocean” to refer to the Aegean Sea. “We do not use the word ‘ocean’ to refer to our seas”, said the Turkish general. “The term ‘ocean’ is only used by the US to refer to the sea”, he argued. “I believe that these documents were translated from the English, from the original American plan”, said Balanli.

The former general’s claim, though unsubstantiated, is bound to be refuted by Washington. It will, however, reinforce Turkish President Erdoğan’s claim that his pro-Islamist government has been the subject of plots and machinations from the West, and especially from Washington.

Turkish media disclose identity of alleged spy for Canada

Mohammed al-RashedBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS |
Turkish media have released the name, as well as video footage, of an alleged agent for Canadian intelligence, who says he helped three British schoolgirls travel to territory controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The three girls, aged between 15 and 16 years old, crossed into ISIS-controlled territory on February 17, after traveling by plane from London to Istanbul. The incident prompted international criticism of the Turkish government’s hands-off attitude toward a growing influx of Western Islamists who cross into Syria from Turkey, intent on joining ISIS. However, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that the girls had been assisted by an intelligence agent working for a member-state of the military coalition fighting ISIS.

The minister declined to offer further details. But Turkish media eventually disclosed the identity of the alleged agent, who has been detained by authorities in Turkey as Mohammed al-Rashed. Also known as “Mohammed Mehmet Rashid” or “Dr. Mehmet Rashid”, the man is a Syrian national who claims to be working for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. According to Turkey’s pro-government daily Sabah, al-Rashed is a 28-year-old Syrian dentist who fled from Syria to Jordan in 2013 to escape the civil war there. While in Jordan, he sought asylum at the Canadian embassy in Amman. He was subsequently offered Canadian citizenship, said Sabah, in return for working as an agent of CSIS. According to the Turkish daily, al-Rashed then traveled to Canada, where he stayed for several months before returning to Jordan.

Sources in Turkey say al-Rashed explained upon his detention that he had been tasked by CSIS to uncover the methods by which European and American ISIS recruits travel to Syria through Turkey. For that reason, he said, he had helped at least 15 individuals, including the three British schoolgirls, cross form Turkey to Syria. He would then provide information on the transfers —including passport data and baggage tags— to the Canadian embassy in Jordan, he said. Sabah added that the Canadians would pay for al-Rashed’s frequent trips to Jordan, where he would meet a Canadian embassy employee called “Matt”, who would then pass on the information to his superior at the embassy, called “Claude”. The Syrian alleged agent added that CSIS would compensate him for his work through frequent deposits of between $800 and $1,500 made to bank accounts opened in his name in British banks. Turkish sources added that al-Rashed had recorded details of his activities on a personal laptop, which had been seized and was being examined.

The Canadian government has yet to comment publicly on the allegations about al-Rashed. Unnamed Canadian sources said last week that he was neither a Canadian citizen nor a CSIS employee. But officials so far refused to speculate on what they describe as “operational matters of national security”.

Turkey says Canadian spy helped British schoolgirls travel to Syria

CCTV footage of UK girls heading to SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS |
In a development described by observers as “highly unusual”, a Turkish government minister has claimed that a Canadian spy helped three British schoolgirls travel to territory controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The three girls, Kadiza Sultana, 16, Shamima Begum, 15, and Amira Abase, also 15, crossed into ISIS-controlled territory on February 17, after having traveled by plane from London to Istanbul. The incident prompted renewed international criticism of the Turkish government’s hands-off attitude toward the growing influx of Western Islamists who cross into Syria from Turkey, intent on joining ISIS.

But Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that the girls had been assisted during their trip by an intelligence agent working for a foreign country. In responding to criticism against Turkey, the minister claimed during a television interview that Turkish security forces had arrested a foreign intelligence operative who had enabled the three British citizens to cross into Syria. The man, said Cavusoglu, was a spy from a member-state of the military coalition fighting ISIS. “It is not a member-state of the European Union”, he added, “nor is he from the United States. But he is working for the intelligence [agency] of a country within the [anti-ISIS] coalition”. Later on Thursday, an unnamed Turkish government source told local media that the agent was not a Turkish citizen and that he had been arrested earlier in March.

Several press agencies, including Reuters and Agence France Presse reported on Thursday that the individual in question was “connected” with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, but stopped short of saying that he was working for the government of Canada. A statement from the office of Steven Blaney, Canada’s Minister for Public Safety, who is responsible for overseeing the work of CSIS, said simply that the Ministry was “aware of these reports” but would “not comment on operational matters of national security”. An anonymous government source in Ottawa denied that the individual arrested in Turkey was a Canadian citizen or that he ever worked for CSIS.

In surprise move, Turkey’s spy chief cancels plans to run for office

The director of the all-powerful Turkish intelligence service, who resigned his post last month in order to run for parliament, has surprised observers by announcing his return to his previous duties saying he had a change of heart. Hakan Fidan has been in charge of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) since 2010, when he was personally appointed to the position by then Prime Minister and current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Following his appointment, he personally supervised operations against political enemies of Erdoğan, who is widely seen as his mentor and close political ally. Early last February, Fidan, a mysterious figure who rarely speaks to the media, announced his resignation as director of MİT in order to run for parliament in June. His move was immediately hailed by the Justice and Development Party, which represents Erdoğan, as well as Turkey’s current Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu.

On Monday, however, Fidan surprised political observers by stating that he had decided not to enter politics after all, and was returning to the post of MİT director, effective immediately. The Turkish strongman’s change of heart appears to have come despite a public approval of his earlier decision to resign his MİT post, from Prime Minister Davutoğlu. Some observers claim that the surprise U-turn may reflect a widening split within the Justice and Development Party, between the prime minister and President Erdoğan, who first appointed Fidan to MİT’s helm back in 2010. Commenting on Fidan’s resignation last month, Erdoğan had signaled displeasure with the move, saying that Fidan “should have stayed [at MİT] instead of leaving without permission”. There are rumors in Ankara that Fidan’s U-turn came after considerable pressure from the pro-Erdoğan faction in the Justice and Development Party. The latter did not approve of Fidan’s resignation from MİT, believing that the spy chief is more needed in helping strike a peace treaty with Turkey’s disaffected Kurdish population. However, Davutoğlu’s people in the party believed that Fidan could add to the political prestige of their electoral campaign.

Does Fidan’s sudden return to MİT signal a widening tactical fragmentation within the Justice and Development Party? Davutoğlu told reporters on Monday that rumors of a division had been invented by the media, and that he and Erdoğan continue to “always consult” each other. Meanwhile the media-shy MİT chief declined to speak publicly about his decision, and instead issued a brief statement that said he had come to the conclusion that it was “necessary” to resume his previous post.

Senior Turkish intelligence official found dead in Romania

The shadowy former director of Turkey’s naval intelligence agency, who had been facing charges for his role in a military coup in Turkey, has been found dead in Romania. Retired Colonel Eser Şahan, 66, headed the Turkish Navy’s intelligence wing in the 1990s, and participated in a swift military coup that toppled the government. The coup, known in Turkey as “the 1997 military memorandum” unfolded on the evening of February 28, 1997, when secularist officers from every branch of Turkey’s Armed Forces forced the resignation of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and ended the rule of his coalition government.

The putsch was primarily directed against Erbakan’s Islamist-based Welfare Party, which was seen as violating Turkey’s constitutional separation between religion and state institutions. Although the parliament remained in session and the constitution continued to be in effect following the February 28 military coup, Turkey’s Constitutional Court outlawed the Welfare Party shortly afterwards. But many of its Islamist members, including Istanbul mayor, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, formed a new political group called the Virtue Party, and eventually the Justice and Development Party, which took power in the country 2002. With Erdoğan in power, the leaders of the 1997 coup, including Colonel Şahan, were tried for subverting Turkey’s democracy.

But Şahan managed to escape to Romania, where he promptly requested —and was eventually given— political asylum. He had been living there since 2004. Turkish media said last week that authorities in Romania had released very little information about the circumstances of Şahan’s death. However, several Turkish newspapers, including the leading Zaman, said the retired colonel’s body had been found lying on a park bench in the Romanian capital Bucharest. A handgun was allegedly found on the ground next to him. Sources claim he committed suicide.


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