United States quietly scraps joint anti-terrorist intelligence project with Turkey

Incirlik TurkeyThe United States has indefinitely suspended a longstanding military intelligence-sharing program with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally Turkey. The program, which targets a Kurdish separatist group, is believed to have been in place since 2007. According to the Reuters news agency, which published the story on Wednesday, it has never before been reported on by news media.

The joint intelligence-sharing program targets the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant organization that campaigns for a separate homeland for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Washington and Ankara have both designated the group a terrorist organization, and have been working jointly to combat it since at least 1997. According to Reuters, the United States military has been carrying out surveillance on the PKK using unmanned surveillance drones that fly out of Turkey’s Incirlik air base. Much of the surveillance focuses on the regions of Turkey that border with Iraq and Syria, where the PKK has a strong grassroots presence.

But Washington decided to suspend the program indefinitely last October, said Reuters. The decision was allegedly taken after Turkish troops invaded Syria in order to push back Kurdish rebels and establish a Kurdish-free buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. The news agency cited four American officials, who did not wish to identify themselves, “due to the sensitivity of the matter”. It also cited an unnamed Turkish official, who confirmed that the intelligence-collection program had been terminated.

The American officials told Reuters that the suspension of the program would place strains on the ability of the Turkish military to respond to the challenges of its ongoing guerrilla war against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, as well as within Turkey. It will also make “the anti-PKK campaign more […] costly for Turkey”, one of the officials told the news agency.

Reuters said it contacted the United States Department of Defense, but was told by a spokeswoman that the Pentagon would “not provide details on operational matters”. A spokesperson from the United States Department of State told Reuters that its representatives could “not comment on intelligence matters”. The Turkish Ministry of Defense did not return requests for comment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 February 2020 | Permalink

In surprise move, Turkish and Syrian intelligence chiefs meet in Moscow

Turkey SyriaIn a move that surprised observers, the intelligence chiefs of Turkey and Syria —two bitter rivals in the ongoing Syrian civil war— met in Russia on Monday. The meeting was held in Moscow and was acknowledged by officials from both sides, making it the first explicit contact between Turkish and Syrian intelligence in over a decade.

The Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has openly called for the toppling of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. The Turkish strongman regularly refers to al-Assad as a “terrorist” and blames him for clandestinely supporting Kurdish paramilitaries, who have waged a war of secession against Ankara for several decades.

Regional dynamics shifted radically since early 2017, however, when the United States began withdrawing from the conflict. In the following months, Washington lifted its support for a collection of rebels fighting against the Syrian president. Last year, the US military left northern Syria and allowed Turkish troops to invade the region, with the aim of repelling armed Kurdish units from the Syrian-Turkish border.

Throughout this time, there have been rumors of intelligence coordination between Ankara and Damascus, but no official acknowledgement was ever issued. On Monday, however, Syria’s government-owned news agency, SANA, said that a meeting had taken place in Moscow between the heads of intelligence of Syria and Turkey. Shortly afterwards, a number of anonymous Turkish officials confirmed these reports to the Reuters news agency.

Reuters reported that the two sides discussed the state of the ceasefire in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, and future steps aimed at coordinating against the presence of armed Kurdish separatists in northern Syrian regions. It quoted one Turkish official who said that the two intelligence agencies were exploring “the possibility of working together” against separatist Kurdish groups on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 January 2020 | Permalink

Turkey offers to send troops to Libya as tensions rise with Greece, Egypt

Turkey LibyaTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said his country is prepared to deploy troops to Libya, just days after Ankara surprised analysts by announcing an agreement with the embattled Libyan government in Tripoli. The Turkish-Libyan agreement has spurred angry reactions from Israel, Greece and Egypt, all of which are competing with Turkey for control of newly discovered gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean seabed.

The Turkish-Libyan agreement merges the two countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and ostensibly prevents other players in the area, including Greece, Egypt, Israel and Cyprus, from drilling for natural gas without the consent of Ankara and Tripoli. However, according to Greece, the agreement disregards the presence of several Greek islands —including the largest one, Crete— in the Turkish-Libyan EEZ. Athens says that it views the Turkish-Libyan agreement as a direct claim against its territory. Last week the Greek government summarily expelled the Libyan ambassador from the country, marking a dramatic deterioration in the historically close relationship between Athens and Tripoli.

To further-complicate matters, several European countries, as well as Russia and the United States, do not support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), with which Turkey has signed its agreement. Instead, they support the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. Haftar lived in the United States under Washington’s protection for several decades before returning to Libya in 2011. The LNA, which is based in eastern Libya, is also supported by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other American allies in the Persian Gulf.

It follows that, if Turkey deploys troops to Libya, it may be entering a collision course with several of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. Ankara’s move will also be confronted by Russia, which is purported to have troops in eastern Libya. On Tuesday, however, Turkish President Erdoğan seemed determined to proceed with his plan. In a speech at a university in Ankara, the Turkish leader proclaimed that, “if Libya were to make a request, we would send a sufficient number of troops”, adding that “there is no hurdle” to doing so “after the signing of the security agreement” between Ankara and Tripoli.

This is the first time that Turkey has secured an agreement with a regional ally in the matter of energy exploration rights. Previously, Greece, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus struck a deal to coordinate their gas exploration activities, and eventually supply Europe with Israeli and Cypriot natural gas via a projected gas pipeline that would pass through Greece. But the Turkish move raises doubts about the prospects of such a project, with some analysts even speculating whether centuries-old rivals Greece and Turkey may be getting closer to war.

In a speech on Monday, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos warned Ankara that “Greece will defend its borders [and] territory”. Meanwhile European Union leaders met on Monday behind closed doors to discuss the imposition of sanctions on Turkey as punishment for disputing the maritime territorial boundaries of Cyprus, a European Union member.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 December 2019 | Permalink

Turkey arrests German embassy lawyer on espionage charges

Germany Embassy TurkeyTurkish authorities have charged a lawyer working for the German embassy in Ankara with espionage, further-straining the already tense relationship between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies. German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which reported on the arrest, did not name the lawyer, but said he is a Turkish citizen and was arrested in September.

The newsmagazine said the lawyer had been hired by the German embassy to obtain information about Turkish citizens who had applied for political asylum in Germany. German authorities would regularly give the lawyer identifying information about asylum applicants. The lawyer would then verify with Turkish police that the applicants had a blank criminal record and were not wanted for participation in criminal activity. The German embassy would then forward the information collected by the lawyer to the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (known in Germany as BAMF), which would subsequently approve or reject the asylum applications.

Following the lawyer’s arrest by the Turkish National Intelligence Service (MİT), German authorities are concerned that the Turkish government has seized identifying information on at least 50 Turkish applicants for political asylum in Germany. Some of these applicants are reportedly members of Turkey’s persecuted Kurdish minority. Others are alleged supporters of Fethullah Gülen a United States-based former political ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who Turkey accuses of having orchestrated the failed 2016 military coup against Erdoğan.

The German Foreign Office has described the lawyer’s arrest as “incomprehensible” and has reportedly warned those asylum seekers affected by it that their safety may be endangered. Meanwhile, German diplomats are engaged in high-level talks with the Turkish government to secure the lawyer’s release, according to Spiegel. The effort is being led by no other than Martin Erdmann, a veteran diplomat who is serving as Germany’s ambassador to Turkey.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 November 2019 | Permalink

Turks feared Russia might bomb Erdoğan’s palace in 2015, intelligence memo shows

Hmeimim AirbaseAuthorities in Turkey were concerned that Russia might bomb the presidential palace in Ankara in 2015, to retaliate against the downing of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish military, according to an intelligence report. On November 25 of that year, a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M attack bomber was shot down by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet over the Syrian-Turkish border. Ankara claimed that the Russian aircraft had violated Turkish airspace for longer than five minutes and had failed to respond to 10 warning messages communicated by radio. By the time the Russian plane was fired upon it was nearly 1.5 miles inside Turkish airspace, according to Turkey’s Ministry of Defense. But the Kremlin claimed that the downed aircraft had been flying a mile south of the Turkish border when it was shot down.

A few hours after the incident, Russian President Vladimir Putin described it as “a stab in the back by terrorist accomplices” and warned Ankara that Moscow would not tolerate such attacks on its armed forces. International observers expressed concern about a possible armed retaliation by Russia against the Turkish military. Now a formerly classified intelligence report suggests that Turkish authorities were concerned that Russia might bomb the country’s presidential palace in Ankara. The report was unearthed by the Nordic Research Monitoring Network (NRMN), a security-oriented research initiative staffed by Turkish experts who live in Europe and the United States.

The NRMN said the previously classified report was authored by Signals Intelligence Directorate of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, known as MİT. It describes an intercepted conversation that took place on December 3, 2015. The conversation involved a Syrian military officer, who was believed to be a brigadier general in the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The officer, identified in the document only as Adnan, was reportedly speaking with an unnamed Russian general, identified only as Sergei, and another unidentified senior officer in the Syrian armed forces. The discussion concerned an upcoming meeting between Syrian and Russian military officials at the Hmeimim Airbase, a Russian-operated military installation on the outskirts of Latakia.

The purpose of the meeting was for the Russian forces to officially notify the Syrians that their warplanes would be carrying a heavier payload in the future, and to explain why. At one point in the conversation the Russian general told the Syrians that part of the heavier payload would consist of “barrel bombs [that] will go to Erdoğan’s palace”. The MİT interpreted that to mean the Turkish Presidential Complex, which is located inside the Atatürk Forest Farm in the Beştepe neighborhood of Ankara. The ensuing intelligence report contains handwritten notes indicating that the information contained in it was communicated to the leadership of the Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish General Staff.

At the end no attack took place. In June of the following year President Erdoğan sent a letter to his Russian counterpart, in which he expressed his condolences for the family of the Russian pilots who were killed when their aircraft was shot down. Following the July 2016 coup, the two Turkish pilots who had shot down the Russian aircraft were arrested on suspicion of being involved in the attempt to topple Erdoğan. This, in association with the Turkish president’s letter of sympathy, were seen by Moscow as goodwill gestures from Ankara. Relations between the two countries were eventually restored.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 November 2019 | Permalink

Turkey’s arrest of al-Baghdadi’s sister is ‘intelligence goldmine’ says official

Rasmiya AwadA Turkish government official has described the arrest of the sister of the late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as “an intelligence goldmine”. The official was referring to the arrest of Rasmiya Awad, an Iraqi citizen, who was reportedly arrested on Monday. Little is known about al-Baghdadi’s sister. She is believed to have been born in 1954, which makes her 65 years old this year.

Awad was arrested during a raid by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army at a makeshift refugee camp in the suburbs of Azaz, a city of 30,000 located approximately 20 miles northwest of Aleppo. The Aleppo province in northwestern Syria has been under Turkish military control since 2016. Since then, the Turkish military command has relied on the Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army and a selection of smaller pro-Turkish militia to control the region.

The Associated Press reported that Awad was detained along with her family, including her husband, her daughter-in-law, and her five children. Five other adults were arrested in the vicinity of the refugee camp, all of them Iraqi citizens, but there is no word yet on whether they are in any way connected with the Islamic State. Turkish officials told the Associated Press yesterday that Awad, her husband and her daughter-in-law were being interrogated.

The news agency quoted one Turkish government official as saying that Awad’s capture was “an intelligence goldmine. What she knows about [the Islamic State] can significantly expand our understanding of the group and help us catch more bad guys”, the official is reported to have told the Associated Press.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 November 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: ISIS leader’s hideout in Turkish-controlled part of Syria raises questions

Turkey SyriaIn 2011, the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad raised questions about Pakistan’s knowledge of his whereabouts. Today it is hardly controversial to suggest that at least some elements in the Pakistani government must have been aware of bin Laden’s location. Last week’s discovery of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a region of Syria controlled by Turkey inevitably raises similar questions about Ankara’s role in the Syrian conflict and its relationship with the Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State was found hiding in Barisha, a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is located just two miles from the Turkish border. The region that surrounds Barisha is under the control of Turkey and can most accurately be described as a Turkish protectorate inside Syria. The area north of Barisha has been under Turkish control since August of 2016, when Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield, a cross-border operation conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces in cooperation with Turkish-baked militias in Syria. In early 2018, Turkish and pro-Turkish forces extended their territorial control further south, capturing Barisha and all surrounding regions. They remain in control of the area to this day.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is often described as a “proto-state”. It is governed by a collection of local councils of Turkmens and Arabs, with some Kurds and Yazidis also present. These councils elect representatives to the self-proclaimed Syrian Interim Government, which was formed in Turkey by Turkish-backed Syrian exiles and is currently headquartered in Azaz, an Arab-majority city of 30,000 that is under direct Turkish military control. Azaz is also the headquarters of the Turkish-backed “Free Police”, a gendarmerie-style militia that is funded, trained and equipped by the Turkish government.

In addition to the Turkish troops, the region is controlled by the Turkish-funded Syrian National Army. The 25,000 troops of the SNA —which is jokingly referred to by the locals as the “Turkish Syrian National Army”— operate completely under Turkish command. A substantial portion of the SNA’s force consists of former Islamic State fighters who switched their allegiance to the SNA once they saw the writing on the wall. Others are former members of the group that used to call itself Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has become the most powerful Salafi-jihadist force in Syria after the demise of the Islamic State.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is also the base of Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist group consisting of over 20,000 fighters, which is not officially aligned with al-Qaeda, but has similar goals. Since at least 2017, Ahrar al-Sham has effectively operated as a Turkish proxy militia and is in charge of dozens of check points and observation posts throughout the region. Lastly, the area is home to Hurras al-Din, yet another Salafi-jihadist group that is affiliated with al-Qaeda —though its leaders deny it. The group is able to operate in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria with suspicious ease. It was this group, Hurras al-Din, that sheltered al-Baghdadi in Barisha in return for cash.

Given Turkey’s military and political control of Idlib province, the question arises of how the world’s most high-profile terrorist leader was able to enter the region and receive protection from a militia that operates there under the watchful eye of the Turkish military. The New York Times reports that al-Baghdadi had been living in Barisha for several months before last week’s raid, and that Washington had been aware of his hideout location since the summer. Was Turkish intelligence also aware of the Islamic State leader’s whereabouts? If not, how could that be? If yes, why did it take a Kurdish spy, handled by Syrian Kurdish intelligence, to locate him and provide information to the Untited States? More importantly, what exactly is the relationship between Turkey and the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who seem to operate freely in Idlib and provide protection to senior Islamic State officials in exchange for cash?

There are clearly more questions than answers here. If the United States is serious about combating Islamist extremism in the Middle East, it must press Ankara on these questions as a matter of urgency.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 October 2019 | Permalink