If there’s a silver lining to last Tuesday’s downing of a Russian Su-24 warplane by two Turkish F-16s it’s that the world is now starting to scrutinize President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even to the uninitiated it seemed strange that a NATO member would shoot down a Russian fighter jet over an alleged 17 second violation of Turkish airspace. Why, one wonders, would the democratically elected leader of one of the world’s foremost up and coming emerging markets decide, out of the blue, to become the first member of the alliance to engage a Russian or Soviet aircraft in more than six decades?
The answer to that question lies in Ankara’s covert dealings with the various rebel groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria.
Turkey’s support for some militias (the Turkmen fighters aligned with the FSA for instance) is not secret. However, there’s no shortage of speculation that Erdogan is also allied with less “moderate” forces including ISIS. The PKK for instance, has long accused the government of maintaining a cozy relationship with Islamic State and there are all manner of reasons to believe that Turkey has at various times facilitated the flow of fighters and weapons to ISIS (see here) and served as a critical link between the group’s lucrative oil operation and global crude markets (see here and here). Now, thanks to last week’s plane “incident”, this has been laid bare for the world to see and Erdogan is not happy about it.
Now that AKP has regained its political supremacy (thanks to a farce of an election Erdogan engineered after AKP lost its absolute majority in June), Ankara has renewed its crackdown on undesirable journalism. As we reported on Friday, Can Dündar, editor in chief of Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gül, the newspaper’s capital correspondent in Ankara, were arrested last week on charges of spying and aiding and abetting terrorists.
In reality, Dündar and Gül exposed Turkish intelligence’s role in providing weapons to extremists operating across the border. Here’s WSJ with the summary: "The charges center on a Cumhuriyet report in May, including photos and video, suggesting Turkish intelligence was secretly ferrying weapons to extremist Syrian rebels. The article sparked a major furor in Turkey, which has long been accused by its critics of secretly aiding in the growth of Islamic State militants based in neighboring Syria.” Here’s the video:
“The footage shows gendarmerie and police officers opening crates on the back of the trucks which contain what newspaper Cumhuriyet described as weapons and ammunition,” Reuters reported at the time, adding that “witnesses and prosecutors have alleged that MIT 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.”
For his part, Erdogan claimed the trucks were carrying humanitarian aid for Turkmen groups (presumably the same FSA-aligned Turkmen groups who executed a Russian pilot last week). The President then hilariously accused a bevy of officers and prosecutors of being part of a “parallel state” (with ties to Fethullah Gülen) determined to bring down the government.
As Reuters went on to detail, the trucks were eventually allowed to pass after MIT officials threatened the police."Don't treat me like you have captured a terrorist," one of the men told a gendarmerie officer who had handcuffed him.
The contents of the crates: 1,000 mortar shells, hundreds of grenade launchers and more than 80,000 rounds of ammunition for light and heavy weapons.
Here's where the trucks were intercepted:
Given that the battle for Aleppo (which is still going on today with Iranian ground forces advancing on the city), was raging at the time the trucks were stopped, and given what we know about FSA's ongoing presence in the city, it seems fairly obvious that the weapons were bound for the Free Syrian Army. Indeed, Erdogan hedged his "humanitarian aid for Turkmens" story, telling supporters over the weekend that "those who revealed the transfer made the world hear about these trucks by stopping them and checking what they were carrying. Then they said the government was sending weapons to terrorist groups [in Syria]. In so doing, they revealed all the humanitarian aid that was going to Bay?r-Bucak Turkmens. They also exposed those going to the FSA in that way."
Of course funneling money to the FSA is dangerous enough as we saw last week when the 1st coastal brigade destroyed a Russian search and rescue helicopter with a US-made TOW, but it's not as though the FSA (they're "moderates" don't forget, despite the fact that they fight alongside al-Nusra) were alone in Aleppo when these MIT trucks were stopped. Here are two maps which show the ISIS presence in the city on 01/05/2014:
As you can see, there's no telling who these weapons were intended for which, presumably, is why the gendarmerie sought to stop the shipment.
Not satisfied with having imprisoned the reporters who broke the story, Erdogan moved on Monday to arrest the officers involved in the stop. Here's the official story from state-run Anadolu Agency:
A court in Istanbul has ordered the arrest of three senior army officers, including two generals on charges of espionage and leading a terrorist group in a case involving the search of Turkish intelligence trucks in 2014.
The court made the ruling on Sunday.
General Hamza Celepoglu was accused of forming and leading an armed terrorist organization and of trying to overthrow the Turkish government. General Ibrahim Aydin and a retired colonel, Burhanettin Cihangiroglu, were accused of forming and leading an armed terrorist organization as well as spying and trying to oust the Turkish government, according to Istanbul prosecutor Irfan Fidan.
The three suspects were called to an Istanbul courthouse on Saturday as part of an investigation involving the search of trucks belonging to the Turkish intelligence (MIT) in 2014.
In January of that year, several trucks were stopped by the local gendarmerie in southern Adana and Hatay provinces on the grounds that they were loaded with ammunition, despite a national security law forbidding such a search.
So let's just be clear about what's going on here, because it would be a shame if the absurdity was lost on anyone. In January 2014, MIT loaded up some trucks with weapons bound for militant groups operating in northwestern Syria. Those trucks were stopped at the border by police who were subsequently threatened by intelligence agents who accompanied the drivers. Erdogan has now charged the officers with "forming and leading an armed terrorist organization," when in fact they were doing the exact opposite. That is, they were trying to keep several truck loads of weapons from reaching armed terrorist organizations.
As you can see, there are no limits on what Erdogan will do to suppress dissent and cover up Ankara's role in implicitly supporting terrorism by arming militants in Syria.
It's worth noting that the FSA has become nothing more than a kind of catch-all excuse for flooding Syria with weapons. As al-Jazeera reported earlier this month, the group is beset with defections and "nowhere is [the dissatisfaction] more apparent than in Aleppo, where many FSA soldiers are leaving the group, citing inadequate pay, family obligations and poor conditions." Still, the media manages to portray them as a well-organized group of battle-hardened, "moderate" warriors who have a very real chance at battling the Russians and Iranians to a stalemate (they've rejected Russia's overtures regarding teaming up to fight ISIS) on the way to negotiating for a transition away from the Assad government. This characterization allows Washington and its regional allies to justify the hundreds of millions in guns, ammo, and funding that to this day flows into the country unimpeded. Whether or not all of that goes to the FSA or the Kurds or whether, like Erdogan's MIT trucks, it all could be going to the very same groups who organize and execute attacks on Western civilians is an open question that will likely never be answered.