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.
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,
refused to recognize the legitimacy of Egypt’s new military government, cut off diplomatic ties with Israel, angered Iran with its acceptance of a NATO radar station and its support for Syrian rebels, quarreled with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, angered key Gulf states over its support for Muslim Brotherhood movements throughout the region, and alienated Europe with unfounded accusations and conspiracy theories. In October it shocked its NATO allies by announcing that it would procure a missile-defense system from a Chinese company that is under U.S. sanctions for its dealings with Iran.
This, then, is the upshot of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. In the Middle East, you are destined to have problems with your neighbors. What’s more, the policy—the brainchild of an academic theoretician, now Erdogan’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu—does not account for the power politics of the region or allow for normal pursuit of the national interest.
Imagine the Middle East as a large checkerboard where you sit on black. You will have problems with everyone surrounding you who sits on red, so you want to befriend all the other players on black. In effect, this was the rationale for Israel and Turkey’s strategic alliance. Syria was a problem for them both, as was Iran. Erdogan traded the relationship with Israel for a fantasy—never imagining that even if he attempted friendship with everyone in the region except Israel, he’d still keep running into trouble.
It’s one thing to annoy the Saudis and other Gulf states as well as the Egyptian military by going against them and continuing to support Mohamed Morsi even as he languishes in detention. A world leader should know when to walk away from a lost cause; but Erdogan’s personal loyalty to Morsi is unlikely to affect Turkey strategically. Syria is another matter. Erdogan’s choices have put him at odds with everyone—including the Turkish public, which fears a growing refugee problem, further terrorist attacks from Syrian and Iranian agents, and the growing number of Islamist fighters transiting Turkey on their way to fight the Assad regime.
In supporting the Syrian rebels, including some radical units, Erdogan has also crossed the White House. Indeed, some Turkish sources are convinced that the leaks against Hakan Fidan are intended to get Erdogan to fall into line behind Obama. Erdogan and Fidan came to Washington this spring in the hope of getting Obama to support the Syrian rebels. But it is now clear the administration’s paramount goal in the region is to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, and it doesn’t want to make the Iranians unhappy by helping topple their ally Assad. The United States is disengaging from Syria and expects the Turks to follow suit.
It is here that parallels can be seen between Erdogan’s regional policy and Obama’s. Both are academic constructs divorced from real-world experience and thus destined to get their proponents into trouble. If Obama wanted a deal with Iran he’d turn up the pressure in Syria until the Iranians begged for relief. To that end, Erdogan could play a constructive role, as could other American regional partners like Saudi Arabia, helping damage, even diminish, Iran’s position in Syria. Instead, the White House has cut its allies loose. While Saudi Arabia, now openly critical of the administration, is more vigorously pursuing its own interests, Turkey is wobbling. Instead of letting a NATO ally float out into deep space, the White House ought to be guiding it back to base. That’s not likely to happen on the watch of an American president who, like Erdogan, seems incapable of distinguishing the national interest from the stuff of dreams.
Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.