Analysis: Turkey’s entry in Syrian war further-complicates a chaotic conflict

Syrian troopsEver since 2011, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, Turkey has refrained from directly intervening in the conflict, other than to provide material support to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The hope in Ankara was that Islamist and pro-Assad forces would exhaust each other. There is no evidence that Turkey was at any point seriously alarmed about the rise of Sunni militancy in Syria. Instead, the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made no secret of its primary concern, which was the rise of Kurdish nationalism in northern Syria.

However, a possible demise of the Islamic State may strengthen Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq and could leave the al-Assad regime in place in Damascus. That would be the worst possible outcome for Turkey, which has always viewed the Syrian president a direct threat to its national security, surpassed only by Kurdish separatism. In a desperate effort to avoid such an outcome, Turkey is now increasingly intervening in the war. Its current goal is to have a strong say in how the region will look like once the Islamic State has been defeated.

With the exception of some pro-Turkish rebels, such as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, who openly welcome Ankara’s intervention, no rebel factions in Syria are especially elated by Turkey’s entry in the war. Most recognize that the sole reason for Turkey’s intervention is the protection of its own national interest, which centers on preventing a rise of an independent Kurdish state —either official or de facto— in northern Syria.

Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war will further complicate the conflict and is likely to prolong it. The more international actors are involved in the war, the more convoluted it gets and the longer it will take for it to end. Currently we have the Syrian government, various Sunni rebel forces, the Islamic State, Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Kurds, and several European powers involved in the war. The last thing this conflict needs is yet another foreign intervention, no matter where it comes from.

Moreover, Ankara’s overall role in the Syrian conflict has been inconsistent, as the country has at times sharply distanced itself from both Russian-led and American-led efforts in the region. President Erdogan’s policy on Syria —as on most other matters— has been spasmodic and haphazard, and has been primarily shaped by domestic concerns, as Turkey’s political strongman tries to solidify its rule inside the country. Consequently neither Moscow nor Washington have much faith in the reliance of the Turkish military contribution to the conflict.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States could further-complicate the regional balance of power in the Middle East and Turkey’s role in it. If a rapid rapprochement takes place between Washington and Moscow in 2017, Turkey will feel increasingly uneasy about its regional role. The Kurds, who have been working closely with Russia in Syria and with America in Iraq, will expect to be rewarded and compensated once the dust settles in the region. There have been voices in Moscow and Washington calling for the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdish state in northern Syria. If that happens, it will signal a massive setback for Turkey’s foreign policy and negatively affect its relations with Russia and possibly the United States.

Over a million people have now died in the Syrian civil war. Millions more have been displaced internally and abroad. Things could get immeasurably worse if Russian-led and American-led forces launch all-out attacks in Aleppo and Mosul respectively. There is no reason to believe at this point that the Islamic State and other rebel groups will abandon these cities, where over a million people remain trapped between the warring sides. We could be seeing the largest slaughter of civilians since World War II. At that point, there will be little that Ankara or anyone else can do to restore stability in that desperately troubled region.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 November 2016 | Permalink

Dozens of Turkish diplomats apply for asylum in Germany following July coup

Embassy of Turkey in BerlinAt least 35 Turkish nationals with diplomatic passports have applied for political asylum in Germany following last July’s failed military coup in Turkey, according to German authorities. The administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating the coup, which included an armed attack on the country’s parliament and the murder of over 200 people across Turkey. The Gülen movement consists of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses from his home in the United States. The government of Turkey has designated Gülen’s group a terrorist organization and claims its members have stealthily infiltrated state institutions since the 1980s.

Since the end of the failed coup, the Turkish state has initiated a nationwide political crackdown directed at alleged supporters of the coup. An estimated 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs, while hundreds of thousands have been demoted, censured or warned. Another 32,000 are believed to be in prison charged with supporting the failed coup or with being members of the Gülen network. Many of those targeted in the crackdown belong to the country’s diplomatic corps. It is believed that the 35 Turkish holders of diplomatic passports members of the country’s diplomatic community who were stationed abroad when the coup took place and are now hesitant to return to their home country for fear of being arrested.

On Monday, German Interior Ministry spokesman Johannes Dimroth told reporters in Berlin that the Turkish nationals had filed applications for asylum with Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, known as BAMF. He added that the number of 35 asylum seekers included diplomats’ family members, who are also carriers of diplomatic passports. He did not specify whether the asylum seekers had been based in Germany prior to the July 15 coup. In response to a question from a reporter, Dimroth said that 35 was “not an absolute and final figure” and that it could change in the coming weeks. When asked about the reasons given by the asylum seekers for their applications, Dimroth refused to speculate. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Turkish embassy in Berlin did not respond to questions on the matter.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 October 2016 | Permalink

US files espionage charges against military contractors with Turkish ties

PentagonIn a development that is expected to contribute to the downward spiral in Turkish-American relations, the United States government has reportedly filed espionage charges against three Department of Defense contractors with Turkish background. The three are believed to have been charged with transferring US military secrets abroad and are currently in prison.

A statement published by the US Pentagon said that the group consists of two men and a woman, all of whom are of Turkish background. Two of them are naturalized American citizens. They are listed as owners of a company that conducts research in military technology and has contracted for many years with the US Pentagon. All contracts were allegedly won following competitive bids and can only be awarded to bidders who are in possession of US citizenship and top security clearances. According to Turkey’s pro-government English-language newspaper, Daily Sabah, the three contractors have helped develop and manufacture parts for missile-launching systems used on American warplanes. They have also worked on several generations of grenade launchers used by the US military.

But on Sunday, the three contractors were arrested in simultaneous raids and charged with “funneling military secrets out of the country”, according to Sabah. The paper said the US government decided to arrest the three once it became known that some hardware parts related to the Pentagon bids handled by their company were being illegally manufactured in Turkey. There is no information in the Pentagon’s press release on whether the top-secret military components were also shared with the Turkish government. Relations between Washington and Ankara, two North Atlantic Treaty Organization member-states, have suffered since the failed July 15 military coup in Turkey. Many in the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blame Washington for the coup and for allegedly shielding the man behind it, the Islamic cleric Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the US state of Pennsylvania.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 October 2016 | Permalink

Turkey has more spies in Germany than Stasi had during Cold War: expert

Turks in GermanyThe Turkish intelligence service currently employs more operatives in Germany than the East German spy agency did at the height of the Cold War, according to a German expert on espionage. The comment was made following the disclosure that Turkey maintains close to 6,000 informants and other intelligence operatives in Germany. An unnamed German security official told German newspaper Die Welt on Monday that the informants are operational throughout Germany and are handled by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, known as MİT.

According to Die Welt, many of these informants are tasked with keeping tabs on Germany’s large Kurdish community, which Ankara views as domestic threats to Turkish national security. More recently, however, MİT operatives in Germany have been instructed to infiltrate groups of supporters of the charismatic Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen who lives in the United States. A former ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Gülen and his millions of supporters around the world now oppose the Turkish government and are described as terrorists by Ankara. President Erdoğan has personally accused “Gülenists” of orchestrating the failed July 15 coup in Turkey. In addition to infiltration, MİT informants in Germany are allegedly engaged in psychological operations against perceived opponents of the Turkish government, and sometimes engage in blackmail and intimidation of targeted individuals or groups, according to Die Welt.

Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, one of Germany’s best known independent researchers on intelligence, and a widely published author, said he was surprised that the number of alleged MİT operatives in Germany is this high. If the number of 6,000 operatives is accurate, said Schmidt-Eenboom, it would place the MİT above the level of the Stasi during the Cold War. He was referring to the Ministry for State Security, the intelligence agency of communist-era East Germany, which was known for its extensive networks of informants during the Cold War. Schmidt-Eenboom said that, according to Stasi records, the agency handled approximately 10,000 operatives in West Germany, a country that at the time had a population of 60 million. In contrast, the 6,000 MİT operatives in Germany are primarily tasked with monitoring the Turkish and Kurdish immigrant community there, which numbers no more than 3 million. Consequently, said Schmidt-Eenboom, there are 500 potential human targets for each present-day MİT operative, whereas there were 6,000 West German citizens for every Stasi operative during the Cold War.

The article in Die Welt did not specify whether the alleged MİT informants are paid agents or simply supporters of the Turkish government who have volunteered their services. As intelNews //reported// earlier this week, some members of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Parliamentary Oversight, including its chairman, Clemens Binninger, plan to launch an official investigation into the activities of Turkish intelligence in Germany. Of particular interest to the committee is the alleged cooperation between German and Turkish intelligence agencies following the failed coup in Turkey this past July.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 August 2016 | Permalink

Analysis of the Islamic State’s ‘wedding attack’ in Gaziantep, Turkey

Gaziantep, TurkeySaturday’s suicide bombing, which killed over 50 and injured dozens at a wedding in Gaziantep, Turkey, was without doubt the work of the Islamic State. It was yet another attempt by the militant Sunni group to discourage the Kurds from confronting it in battle, by pointing to the deadly consequences. It was also fueled by the desire for vengeance against a population that has consistently resisted the Islamic State’s ideology. Additionally, if confirmed, the use of a child as a suicide bomber by the Islamic State may form a pattern of operational activity that can lead to broader conclusions about the current state of the organization.

It has become increasingly clear in the past two years that the armed Kurdish groups in northern Syria and Iraq, as well as Kurdish peshmerga units based in Turkey, are some of the most formidable opponents of militant Jihadists on the ground. By bombing soft targets inside Turkey, the Islamic State is sending a message to the Kurds that armed opposition on the ground will carry a heavy cost at home. Contrary to initial impressions, there was nothing special about the particular wedding ceremony that was targeted on Saturday. Any wedding would have been suitable for the Islamic State’s purpose. In fact, the randomness of the attack increases its shock value by demonstrating to the local population that any activity can be attacked, even if it does not involve notables. Additionally, the specific choice of a wedding magnifies the brutality of the attack, by targeting a young couple on what is typically the happiest day of their lives. The high concentration of children among the casualties may indicate that the bomber was given specific operational instructions to attack younger participants. The clear warning here is that the disruption will leave nothing untouched –including something as ‘off-limits’ as a couple on their wedding day, or groups of children– if the Kurds continue to fight the Islamic State.

Moreover, the Islamic State is trying to widen the already deep division between the Turkish state and the Kurds, by exposing the inability of the government in Ankara to protect its Kurdish population from attacks. The Kurds already resent Turkey’s ‘soft policy’ on the Islamic State. They and the rest of the world can see that Ankara has typically viewed the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus as far more threatening than the continuing rise of Islamist fundamentalism. Since the failed July 15 coup, the Turkish state has begun to revise its soft stance on the Islamic State, but this comes too late to pacify the country’s infuriated Kurdish population. This latest attack will only intensify the deep anger felt by the Kurds against the Turkish state.

Initial reports indicate the possible use of a child or a teenager to carry out the Gaziantep bombing. These may or may not be accurate. They could easily be an attempt by the Kurds to further-incense international public opinion against the Islamic State. If the reports are accurate, they do not necessarily represent some sort of break from the traditional tactics of the Islamic State. According to the group’s war-fighting doctrine, there is no differentiation between men and children when it comes to what it sees as the defense of Sunni religious doctrine. Every Muslim, regardless of race, gender, or age, is required to engage in holy war. Indeed, the Islamic State has deployed children before, in warfare, executions and suicide bombings against both hard and soft targets. However, even though the use of a child to carry out the Gaziantep bombing is not in itself unique, or particularly important, it matters if it forms part of a broader pattern. If it is verified that ISIS is increasingly using children in suicide bombings, or in warfare, it may signify two things: first, that the organization is finding it difficult to recruit able-bodied men for missions. Second, that adult ISIS recruits are becoming scarcer, so the organization is trying to preserve them for decisive battles.

It may be, of course, that a child or younger teenager was selected in order to avoid security profiling by the Kurds. Still, the use of children in warfare or suicide missions can result in a large degree of unpredictability. Children may be relatively easy targets for recruiters, for the obvious reason that they are young and impressionable. Their reality can therefore be effectively altered by fantastical tales of the supernatural, which the Islamic State is very skilled at. However, children are not necessarily very dependable in war, or terrorism. They can be easily frightened, can change their mind at the last minute, and they do not stay calm under pressure. There are several recent examples of children or teenagers who were recruited for suicide operations but surrendered after changing their mind.

Ultimately, shocking massacres such as Saturday’s attack in Gaziantep cannot be prevented. They can only be limited through careful police and intelligence work. In the case of Turkey, however, this will be difficult. The country’s police, intelligence and military structures have been significantly weakened following the failed July 15 coup. Thousands of government officials, police officers, intelligence and military personnel have been fired, demoted or imprisoned. The state, which is becoming increasingly synonymous with the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP party, is too preoccupied with preserving its own stability to concentrate on combating the terrorist spillover from Syria.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 August 2016 | Permalink

Turkey asks German spies for help in rounding up July coup plotters

Recep Tayyip ErdoğanThe Turkish government has sent an official request to German intelligence for assistance in cracking down on the members of the so-called Gülen movement, which Ankara claims is behind July’s failed coup plot. The movement consists of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses from his home in the United States. The government of Turkey has designated Gülen’s group a terrorist organization and claims it has stealthily infiltrated state institutions since the 1980s. The administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses Gülen’s supporters of orchestrating the July 15 coup that included an armed attack on the country’s parliament and the murder of over 200 people across Turkey.

According to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (known by its Turkish initials, MİT) has secretly contacted its German counterpart, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND). The Turks’ request, said Spiegel, involves the provision of assistance to investigate and arrest supporters of the Gülen movement living in Germany, some of whom are German citizens. There are over three million people with Turkish citizenship, or of Turkish descent, currently living in Turkey. Citing “a dossier of classified documents”, Spiegel said that the MİT had asked the BND to investigate a list of 40 individuals for possible links to Gülen, and to extradite to Turkey another three whom Ankara claims have direct ties to the July coup. The documents also allegedly contain a request for MİT officials to pressure German lawmakers to be more critical of Gülen supporters in Germany. Requests for cooperation were also sent by MİT to nearly a dozen state governments in Germany, but all were declined, said Spiegel.

The Turkish government has arrested, fired or demoted tens of thousands of people since July, for alleged links to the Gülen movement. Some European officials, many of them German, have accused President Erdoğan of using the failed coup as an excuse to purge his opponents of all political persuasions in the country. On Sunday, the head of Germany’s Committee on Parliamentary Oversight, Clemens Binninger, said he would launch an investigation into the joint projects between German and Turkish intelligence agencies following the failed July coup. Another member of the Committee, Hans-Christian Ströbele, said he would personally set up a panel to probe any communication between German intelligence agencies and the MİT. By working closely with Turkish intelligence, German spy agencies were risking “becoming complicit in criminal activity”, said Ströbele.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 August 2016 | Permalink

Turkey arrests nine Caribbean islanders attempting to join ISIS in Syria

Turkey Syria borderTurkish police have detained nine citizens of Trinidad and Tobago who were on their way to Syria, allegedly to join the Islamic State. They are believed to have traveled from Trinidad and Tobago to Caracas in Venezuela, and from there to Amsterdam, Holland, before flying to Turkey. Turkey’s Daily Sabah newspaper said on Monday that the nine men were captured on July 27, after a police roadblock in south-central Turkey’s Adana province stopped a truck heading toward the Syrian border. Upon searching the vehicle, police officers found a Syrian driver and nine passengers, all of whom were Trinidad and Tobago passport holders. All ten men were arrested. The truck’s driver has been charged with attempting to smuggle the nine Caribbean islanders to Syria, where, according to Turkish authorities, they were planning to join the Islamic State. Over 30,000 foreign nationals are estimated to have joined the militant Sunni group, which was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Turkish police said on Tuesday that the nine Trinidadians have been transferred to the Provisional Migration Management authority in Adana and will be deported back to the Caribbean later this week. Negotiations are currently underway between the government in Ankara and authorities in Holland and London, to arrange flight stopovers en route to Trinidad. Meanwhile, speaking in Port of Spain, the Trinidadian capital, the Caribbean country’s Attorney General, Faris al-Rawi, said that the nine soon-to-be deportees would be kept under strict surveillance once back in Trinidad. He added that investigators would determine any charges that the men might face, and called for “an intelligence-based approach” to the problem of ISIS recruits in the country.

Al-Rawi was referring to dozens of prior instances of Trinidad and Tobago citizens who have joined ISIS in Syria. Last January, Turkish authorities arrested four more Trinidadian nationals who were allegedly on their way to Syria. The Caribbean country’s Ministry of National Security has identified 105 men, women and children who left for Syria after ISIS pronounced the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. But nongovernmental sources claim that the actual number of ISIS recruits from Trinidad is closer to 400.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 August 2016 | Permalink