Turkey sees Israel behind campaign against spy chief
Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan. Hürriyet photo“We see this media campaign as an attack and there might be an Israeli effort behind it,” a Turkish intelligence source said on the phone yesterday. “Especially after the Washington Post story on Oct. 17 and the follow-ups with Jerusalem bylines.”
This is a bold claim and the source was referring to a story by seasoned journalist David Ignatius who claimed that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) had given Iranian intelligence the names of 10 Iranians who had been in contact with Israel’s intelligence service, MOSSAD, upon the orders of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan.
The story was based on “knowledgeable sources,” without giving any details about the leak while noting that Israel had seen Hakan Fidan, the head of MİT, as someone who had “friendly links with Tehran.”
There is a background to all of it. Ignatius was the moderator at the World Economic Forum panel in Davos on Jan. 29, 2009, when Erdoğan had his “One minute” storm against him for failing to give a chance to reply to Israeli President Shimon Peres who was also a panelist. And Israelis started to accuse Fidan almost at the same time as he was the Turkish sherpa during the U.N.-sponsored efforts on Iran’s nuclear program, before becoming MİT’s head.
Ankara thinks the WP story is part of a campaign that started with a Wall Street Journal story printed on Oct. 9 saying Fidan was acting “independently” on Syria operations, jeopardizing Western interests there. The story also noted that the discomfort of the U.S. administration was increased during a May 16 lunch at the White House put on by U.S. President Barack Obama for Erdoğan in the presence of Fidan, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Danilon. The WSJ story said Fidan was responsible for Turkey’s soft stance regarding al-Qaeda-affiliated opposition groups in the Syrian civil war.
Both of the stories were refuted by Davutoğlu on Oct. 17. “The claims attributed to Hakan Fidan are both untrue and an example of very bad, black propaganda. Fidan is doing his job,” he said.
But the feelings in the Turkish government regarding the “campaign” are stronger than those on-the-record words of Davutoğlu. One government official pointed to the timing of the media reports “targeting” Fidan. The official said the campaign coincided with approaching Syria talks in Geneva, which are expected to take place in late November, and a dramatic change in Iran’s relations with the West under its new president, Hassan Rouhani.
Since a telephone conversation between Obama and Rouhani on Sept. 27 during U.N. General Assembly talks, the top diplomats of both countries have officially met for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The discussion led to the quick restart of diplomatic efforts for direct talks on Iran’s nuclear program with the P5+1 countries.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not hide his unease at the rapprochement, immediately flying to Washington D.C. to warn Obama on Sept. 30 that Iran was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
When asked about the WP story on the claim of “revealing the Israeli spy ring in Turkey to the Iranians,” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki did not make any comment but said the U.S. had been working with the Turks as an ally on a range of issues and that the report had not changed relations with Turkey.
Sources in Ankara believe that besides trying to defame Turkey in U.S. eyes as a country tolerating terrorists like Iran – and because of its “independent tack” on Syria, amid an effort to try and corner it in a possible move in the U.S. Congress – Israel might have had another motivation. That might be, according to those sources who asked not to be named, an attempt to avoid paying compensation for the nine Turks killed by Israeli commandoes on May 31, 2010, on board the Mavi Marmara on its way to carry humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.
After the official apology from Netanyahu (which was brokered by Obama) on March 24, talks started for compensation to the families of the victims, albeit with no result, as Israel does not want to make the payments in the form of “compensation,” according to Israeli diplomatic sources talking to HDN.
Also, Erdoğan’s close relations with Hamas are another source of disturbance between the two. By coincidence, Khaled Mashaal, the leader of Hamas, was received by Erdoğan in his office in Ankara on Oct. 9, the same day that the WSJ story published.
On Syria, Turkey has been taking more careful steps regarding al-Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting in the civil war there. Turkish intelligence sources have admitted to HDN that there were a number of operative and diplomatic steps taken in parallel with the demands of the U.S., the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia since Erdoğan’s May 16 meeting with Obama.
Davutoğlu said subsequent telephone conversations on Oct. 16 with Kerry and French counterpart Laurent Fabius that Turkey was going to be part of the Geneva talks (which have mainly been a U.S.-Russian matter until now) for the future of Syria and the Bashar al-Assad regime there.
Erdoğan had condemned al-Qaeda in Syria during an Oct. 2 speech in Istanbul and Davutoğlu had, again on Oct. 9, said Turkey neither supported nor tolerated al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and others. Turkish officials may not be ready to acknowledge a “tactical mistake” yet, but those statements might be the cost of underestimating the rise of radical Islamist movements within the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
Perhaps as another belated and defensive move, the Turkish General Staff said Oct. 16 that Turkish artillery had shelled ISIS positions near the al-Qaeda-seized border town of Azaz in response to a shell fired from there – the first event showing the changing Turkish stance. This change of stance may help the Turkish government in its dialogue with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the search for a political solution to the Kurdish problem, too.
It is unclear whether an Israeli “plot” is behind the obvious campaign against Turkey’s intelligence chief and whether it is aimed at Erdoğan’s foreign policy choices, especially regarding the greater Middle East. Turkey is criticized at home and abroad for being distanced from the European Union and getting too involved with the uncertainties of the Middle East. Both the recent EU Progress Report, which calls for Turkey to foster higher standards of democracy to keep up with its European venture, and the Geneva Conference on Syria might be chances to fine-tune Turkish foreign policy.