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Ankara Alienates Everyone

Forget chess, Turkey is failing at geopolitical checkers.

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By LEE SMITH
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A recent spate of newspaper articles suggests a concerted media campaign targeting Turkey’s foreign intelligence service, the MIT, its director, Hakan Fidan, and almost surely his boss as well, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In a piece published by the Wall Street Journal and another by the Washington Times, Fidan is said to be supporting al Qaeda affiliates in Syria fighting against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Then David Ignatius, in his column for the Washington Post, showed Fidan to be playing for the other side, passing sensitive information to Assad’s ally Iran about 10 agents working for Israel inside Iran. 

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Hakan Fidan at the time of his appointment, 2010

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Who is behind the campaign remains unclear, though many suspect the White House or CIA. Also unclear is the purpose of the leaks. And staring at the details—trying to discern, for instance, whether Fidan backs al Qaeda or Iran—only makes the landscape hazier. From the big picture, two main points emerge: Though a NATO ally, Turkey under Erdogan is not to be trusted. And the Obama White House is incapable of managing its allies.

The Ignatius piece is resonating around the region. Ankara denies shopping Mossad assets to the Iranians, and pro-Erdogan media blame Israel for blackening Ankara’s reputation. Israel has declined to confirm the story officially—“Israel doesn’t want to have a public argument with Turkey,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Yigal Palmor. Nevertheless, ex-Mossad chief Danny Yatom, apparently convinced the story is true, said betraying Israeli spies to Iran “brings the Turkish intelligence organization to a position where I assume no one will ever trust it again.”

Israel has good reason to be angry at a country with which, until recently, it enjoyed a strategic alliance. Political fissures became apparent in the wake of the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos killed eight Turkish nationals aboard a flotilla trying to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza. The Turkish press reported last week that it was in response to the flotilla affair that Fidan exposed the 10 agents to the Iranians. Before that, says former Mossad combatant Michael Ross, the MIT and Mossad had a working relationship, “and no matter how sour it may get at the political level, intelligence services continue working together unless directed otherwise. What makes this case so execrable is that intelligence cooperation always transcends politics, and the Turks broke that unwritten rule.” 

Making matters worse, they sabotaged an operation countering Israel’s top strategic threat. “Iranian recruitments would be considered extremely sensitive and very high-priority,” says Ross. And it’s not the first time Fidan is said to have acted in the interests of Tehran. According to Turkish press reports, it was the Turkish intelligence chief who counseled former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi to make his first foreign trip a visit to Iran to cozy up with the Islamic Republic. More damning still, the MIT shared American intelligence with Tehran. Last year, the United States was set to ship 10 predator drones to Turkey when the deal was postponed out of concern that the MIT was giving Iran intelligence collected from U.S. predator drones. This suspicion was confirmed by Turkey’s deputy prime minister in August 2012. Last week, Congress reportedly canceled the sale entirely.

The fact that Fidan’s MIT plays such a large role in Turkey’s political life, replacing the armed forces as the country’s consummate national institution, is bad news, say some Turkish commentators. The problem is not just that Fidan may be close to Iran, but that in running much of its foreign policy through the clandestine service, the troubled Turkish democracy is starting to acquire the habits of an Arab regime. “It’s time for people to take another look at what’s going on in Turkey,” says Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Ankara and a frequent critic of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP). “I hope this is a wake-up call.” 

Edelman and another former American ambassador to Turkey, Morton Abramowitz, have just co-authored a paper for the Bipartisan Policy Center, “From Rhetoric to Reality: Reframing U.S. Turkey Policy,” that points a way forward for the two NATO allies. One problem, as the paper makes clear, is that the incoherent policies of Erdogan’s Turkey have dragged it into conflict with virtually everyone in the Middle East and beyond.

“It has called for the ouster of Syria’s Assad,” write Edelman and Abramowitz, 

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