Turkey’s state intelligence agency helped deliver arms to parts of Syria under Islamist rebel control during late 2013 and early 2014, according to a prosecutor and court testimony from gendarmerie officers seen by Reuters.
The witness testimony contradicts Turkey’s denials that it sent arms to Syrian rebels and, by extension, contributed to the rise of Islamic State, now a major concern for the NATO member.
Syria and some of Turkey’s Western allies say Turkey, in its haste to see President Bashar al-Assad toppled, let fighters and arms over the border, some of whom went on to join the Islamic State militant group which has carved a self-declared caliphate out of parts of Syria and Iraq.
Ankara has denied arming Syria’s rebels or assisting hardline Islamists. Diplomats and Turkish officials say it has in recent months imposed tighter controls on its borders.
Testimony from gendarmerie officers in court documents reviewed by Reuters allege that rocket parts, ammunition and semi-finished mortar shells were carried in trucks accompanied by state intelligence agency (MIT) officials more than a year ago to parts of Syria under Islamist control.
Four trucks were searched in the southern province of Adana in raids by police and gendarmerie, one in November 2013 and the three others in January 2014, on the orders of prosecutors acting on tip-offs that they were carrying weapons, according to testimony from the prosecutors, who now themselves face trial.
While the first truck was seized, the three others were allowed to continue their journey after MIT officials accompanying the cargo threatened police and physically resisted the search, according to the testimony and prosecutor’s report.
President Tayyip Erdogan has said the three trucks stopped on Jan. 19 belonged to MIT and were carrying aid.
“Our investigation has shown that some state officials have helped these people deliver the shipments,” prosecutor Ozcan Sisman, who ordered the search of the first truck on Nov. 7 2013 after a tip-off that it was carrying weapons illegally, told Reuters in a interview on May 4 in Adana.
Both Sisman and Aziz Takci, another Adana prosecutor who ordered three trucks to be searched on Jan. 19 2014, have since been detained on the orders of state prosecutors and face provisional charges, pending a full indictment, of carrying out an illegal search.
The request for Sisman’s arrest, issued by the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) and also seen by Reuters, accuses him of revealing state secrets and tarnishing the government by portraying it as aiding terrorist groups.
Sisman and Takci deny the charges.
“It is not possible to explain this process, which has become a total massacre of the law,” Alp Deger Tanriverdi, a lawyer representing both Takci and Sisman, told Reuters.
“Something that is a crime cannot possibly be a state secret.”
More than 30 gendarmerie officers involved in the Jan. 1 attempted search and the events of Jan. 19 also face charges such as military espionage and attempting to overthrow the government, according to an April 2015 Istanbul court document.
An official in Erdogan’s office said Erdogan had made his position clear on the issue. Several government officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment further. MIT officials could not immediately be reached.
“I want to reiterate our official line here, which has been stated over and over again ever since this crisis started by our prime minister, president and foreign minister, that Turkey has never sent weapons to any group in Syria,” Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Wednesday at an event in Washington.
Erdogan has said prosecutors had no authority to search MIT vehicles and were part of what he calls a “parallel state” run by his political enemies and bent on discrediting the government.
“Who were those who tried to stop MIT trucks in Adana while we were trying to send humanitarian aid to Turkmens?,” Erdogan said in a television interview last August.
“Parallel judiciary and parallel security … The prosecutor hops onto the truck and carries out a search. You can’t search an MIT truck, you have no authority.”
‘TARNISHING THE GOVERNMENT’
One of the truck drivers, Murat Kislakci, was quoted as saying the cargo he carried on Jan. 19 was loaded from a foreign plane at Ankara airport and that he had carried similar shipments before. Reuters was unable to contact Kislakci.
Witness testimony seen by Reuters from a gendarme involved in a Jan. 1, 2014 attempt to search another truck said MIT officials had talked about weapons shipments to Syrian rebels from depots on the border. Reuters was unable to confirm this.
At the time of the searches, the Syrian side of the border in Hatay province, which neighbors Adana, was controlled by hardline Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham.
The Salafist group included commanders such as Abu Khaled al-Soury, also known as Abu Omair al-Shamy, who fought alongside al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and was close to its current chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Soury was killed in by a suicide attack in Syrian city of Aleppo in February 2014.
A court ruling calling for the arrest of three people in connection with the truck stopped in November 2013 said it was loaded with metal pipes manufactured in the Turkish city of Konya which were identified as semi-finished parts of mortars.
The document also cites truck driver Lutfi Karakaya as saying he had twice carried the same shipment and delivered it to a field around 200 meters beyond a military outpost in Reyhanli, a stone’s throw from Syria.
The court order for Karakaya’s arrest, seen by Reuters, cited a police investigation which said that the weapons parts seized that day were destined for “a camp used by the al Qaeda terrorist organization on the Syrian border”.
Reuters was unable to interview Karakaya or to independently confirm the final intended destination of the cargo.
Sisman said it was a tip-off from the police that prompted him to order the thwarted search on Jan. 1, 2014.
“I did not want to prevent its passage if it belonged to MIT and carried aid but we had a tip off saying this truck was carrying weapons. We were obliged to investigate,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Ercan Gurses in Ankara; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Anna Willard)
By Ahmet S. Yayla
Friday’s unsuccessful attempt at a military coup in Turkey unfolded against the backdrop of continued struggles between Erdogan and the AKP Government. However strongly Western democracies may oppose military intervention, it is essential that we examine the underlying causes of this attempt in order to better understand what it means for Turkey and for the world.
Turkey has fallen into turmoil after having isolated itself from its Western allies over the last few years. Beginning in 2014, Erdogan has resorted to increasingly repressive measures against domestic opposition groups and placed extreme limitations on free media, both steps that have eroded the foundations of democracy in Turkey. Erdogan’s policies regarding the Syrian conflict have also worsened Turkey’s isolation, in addition to its deteriorating relationships with the EU and Russia. This seclusion from the world, combined with instability in the country and the region, have caused enormous economic stress.
Turkey has deemed it in its best interests to grant open and hidden support to terrorist groups including Al-Nusra and ISIS. In fact, the bloodshed in Syria might have been far less had Turkey not allowed the passage of foreign fighters through its borders and provided logistical and military support to terrorist organizations. Erdogan’s threats to open Turkey’s borders and send Syrian refugees to Europe have also strained its relationships with the EU.
In addition, an international crisis that closely affected Erdogan erupted in Miami, Florida. Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab was arrested by U.S. federal prosecutors in New York and charged with money laundering and banking fraud to evade sanctions on Iran. He is currently in U.S. prison and faces a maximum sentence of 75 years. What makes Zarrab’s case significant for Erdogan is a December 2013 Turkish police investigation which accused Zarrab of similar charges, including bribing many of Erdogan’s ministers and those in his inner circle.
President Erdogan, meanwhile, has pushed for constitutional changes that would consolidate his authority as President. He also recently sought to modify the constitution to grant him lifelong immunity from prosecution. However, he has been losing ground in Turkey as recent polls show diminishing support; a recent failure to produce proof of a university diploma, a constitutional requirement for the presidency, raised eyebrows on social media.
The coup attempt on July 15 unfolded against the backdrop of all of these international and domestic struggles. The coup itself was unusual in several aspects. Firstly, it started at 10 PM, when most people were still awake; almost all prior coups in Turkey had been executed around 4 AM. The perpetrators of the coup did not shut down the Internet or other means of communication—a known requirement of a successful coup. Soldiers were unable to prevent Erdogan from taking off in his private jet as he became aware of the coup attempt. Most notably, the F16s bombing several targets across the country failed to restrict Erdogan’s plane from landing at Ataturk Airport. Meanwhile, during the coup attempt, no government officials, not even the Prime Minister, were arrested for speaking freely on TV stations.
Just hours after Erdogan left Ataturk Airport, a considerable number of military personnel were arrested, totaling 1563 arrests in less than ten hours. Generals and high-level military officers from across Turkey, including some who had publicly opposed the coup and others who had been on vacation, were among them. 2700 prosecutors and judges were also arrested on the same day, accounting for almost a fourth of all such officials in the country. These mass arrests, which began just after the coup attempt was defeated, made it clear that all the lists were prearranged, and that warrants, if they existed, had been specified beforehand.
The causes for suspicion are clear. The coup attempt arrived just in time to save a leader struggling both internationally and domestically, and might now permit him to consolidate enough power to secure a constitutional amendment, crush his opposition inside the country, provide legal immunity for himself and his family, and eventually be remembered as a democratically elected leader who thwarted a coup instead of a corrupt and authoritarian one.
Immediately after the coup attempt, Erdogan fiercely targeted Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. Erdogan blamed Gulen and his supporters for being behind the coup attempt, just as he had after the Turkish National Police filed corruption charges against him in December 2013. Gulen denied any role in the coup attempt to international media. The Gulen movement is known mostly for its educational activities across the globe. Erdogan has cracked down on Mr. Gulen and his supporters partly by going after his institutions: almost all of them in Turkey, including the media outlets, Bank Asya, and several universities and schools, among other entities, were either closed or had trustees installed to take control from the foundations. Gulen and his followers have also been known to denounce terrorism and violence; Gulen himself was quoted as saying in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that “a terrorist cannot be a Muslim and a Muslim cannot be a terrorist”. From this perspective, it is hard to imagine that Gulen had a vast and powerful base of support in the military. Besides, had he been able to amass such support, why would he have waited three years to throw out Erdogan or force him to negotiate instead of watching while all of his institutions in Turkey were demolished one by one?
Among the many reactions to the coup attack, the most striking came from ISIS social media accounts. Many ISIS-affiliated accounts on Twitter and Telegram expressed their support for Erdogan, calculating that a military administration would be worse for their operations inside Turkey. Erdogan and his ministers also did not hesitate to blame Washington for being behind the coup attempt, fueling more hatred and anti-American sentiment among the supporters of terrorist organizations including ISIS. The NATO base at Incirlik, where coalition forces used to carry out counterterrorism operations, was also shut down immediately after the coup attempt. Perhaps not incidentally, the weakening of military and gendarmerie (rural military police) forces by the arrests, in tandem with the chaos created by the detention of hundreds of officers, will also impact Turkey’s ability to position itself against terrorist organizations, which in turn may result in allowing more ISIS terrorists to find their way through Turkey back into Europe.
After this incident, Turkey must clearly state its position in regards to the West, the United States, and NATO. The words of Turkey’s leaders have not been in sync with their actions, especially with regards to international terrorism. This coup attempt seems as though it was destined to fail, and perhaps was a staged attempt from the very beginning. It certainly leaves plenty of questions unanswered. The soldiers involved in the coup must have been aware that a failed attempt would be the end of their lives, or at least their freedom. The question, then, is why they gave up after having their tanks patrol the streets, unnecessarily bombing the National Assembly, and positioning several F16s over the country even when Erdogan was landing at Ataturk Airport. It is obvious that the coup attempt afforded Erdogan the ultimate opportunity. As Erdogan himself addressed the crowd at the airport, this was “a gift given by God to him” – a mandate to crush his opposition until all forms of resistance have been completely wiped out, advancing his authoritarian rule to a level he could never have attained through democratic means.
Ahmet S. Yayla is co-author of the book ISIS Defectors: Inside the Terrorist Caliphate and Deputy Director at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He is the former Chief of Counterterrorism and Operations Division for the Turkish National Police and Professor of Criminal Justice.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]