PHOTO: Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hakan Fidan at White House with John Kerry and Barack Obama, May 2013
On Thursday, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius — or US officials cited by Ignatius — threw a firebomb at America’s relationship with Turkey:
The Turkish-Israeli relationship became so poisonous early last year that the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said to have disclosed to Iranian intelligence the identities of up to 10 Iranians who had been meeting inside Turkey with their Mossad case officers.
Knowledgeable sources describe the Turkish action as a “significant” loss of intelligence and “an effort to slap the Israelis”.
However, Ignatius’ framing that the revelation is linked to “the current negotiations between Iran and Western nations over a deal to limit the Iranian nuclear program” is a diversion.
This is a story of how the Obama Administration — using favored journalists to put out its message — is breaking from Turkey over the Syrian conflict.
Ignatius’s immediate target is Turkey’s head of intelligence, Hakan Fidan, “suspect in Israel because of what are seen as friendly links with Tehran”, but his allegation is far from new: the claim was being circulated by Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak in 2010.
So why is the campaign against Fidan re-surfacing now?
The answer lies in another article, published on October 9 in The Wall Street Journal, “Turkey’s Spymaster Plots Own Course on Syria“.
The Journal is clear that it is “senior U.S. officials” who put out the message that Fidan “rattled Turkey’s allies by allegedly passing to Iran sensitive intelligence collected by the U.S. and Israel”.
Then the Journal makes the vital connection:
Turkey’s Syria approach, carried out by Mr. Fidan, has put it at odds with the U.S. Both countries want Mr. Assad gone. But Turkish officials have told the Americans they see an aggressive international arming effort as the best way. The cautious U.S. approach reflects the priority it places on ensuring that arms don’t go to the jihadi groups that many U.S. officials see as a bigger threat to American interests than Mr. Assad.
But even as the Journal establishes why Ignatius cannot or will not — that US concern with Fidan is over the Syria question, not the Israel-Iran affair — it adds to the confusion.
The opening of the article sets the scene in May, when Erdogan and Fidan visited the White House “for what both sides knew would be a difficult meeting”:
The U.S. believed Turkey was letting arms and fighters flow into Syria indiscriminately and sometimes to the wrong rebels, including anti-Western jihadists….
Mr. Obama told the Turkish leaders he wanted a close relationship, but he voiced concerns about Turkey’s approach to arming the opposition. The goal was to convince the Turks that “not all fighters are good fighters” and that the Islamist threat could harm the wider region, says a senior U.S. official.
The Journal’s portrayal is thus of Turkey and US clashing over the supply of arms to insurgents in the spring.
Curiously, the Journal never mentions that in early June — weeks after the meeting with Erdogan and Fidan — the Obama Administration said for the first time that it would publicly arm opposition fighters. While the US emphasized that this shift was to build up the “moderate” insurgency, it indicated that the new policy was being co-ordinated with Turkey and other allies.
So what changed between June and now?
The US approach. Far from delivering the arms, the Obama Administration immediately backed away, beset by opposition from military leaders. No weapons were shipped, according to the insurgents.
Then, at the end of August, President Obama suddenly retreated from airstrikes — and any other intervention — over the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons attacks near Damascus. Instead, the US would work with Russia on a plan for President Assad to hand over his chemical weapons stocks.
The decisions forced a choice on Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Did they accept the US shift away from support of the insurgency, possibly accepting Assad in power? Or did the Saudis and Turks continue with the deliveries of arms?
Both Riyadh and Ankara re-asserted their backing of the opposition. Saudi Arabia joined France in declaring support of the Syrian National Coalition and the Supreme Military Committee, rewarding Paris with contracts to re-fit the Saudi armed forces. Prime Minister Erdogan blasted John Kerry, after the US Secretary of State praised Assad for co-operating with the inspection of Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.
Washington had a problem. After insurgents took the old border crossing with Jordan, the Saudis could more easily assist movement of arms into southern Syria.
On the front in northern Syria, the Saudis and others could run weapons across the Turkish border.
At the same time, the US saw an advance of “extremist” groups, notably the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham, across the north. ISIS’s capture of Azaz and pressure on Atmeh raised the prospect of the jihadist faction taking control of positions on the Turkish border, and thus benefiting from the arms supplies.
The developments reinforced both Washington’s fears and its new political approach. The US would distance itself from any promotion of the insurgency, instead emphasizing a “peace” conference — even though the Syrian opposition will not attend a meeting without confirmation that President Assad will step down.
But what if the Turks persisted?
The word has gone out from US officials and supportive journalists — they won’t. The New York Times declared on Friday:
With radical Islamists controlling territory along the Turkish border, and the United States working with the Assad government to rid it of chemical weapons, his policy is in turmoil and his country without a viable ally in Syria. Mr. Erdogan has himself been criticized for allowing weapons to get into the hands of jihadists.
So, without a shred of evidence from Ankara, the newspaper pronouced, “Erdogan, Syrian Rebels’ Leading Ally, Hesitates”.
Reuters joined in, “Al Qaeda’s Rise in Northern Syria leaves Turkey with Dilemma”:
Turkey has long championed more robust backing for Syria’s fractious armed opposition, arguing it would bring a quicker end to Assad’s rule and give moderate forces the authority they needed to keep more radical Islamist elements in check.
But with Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) taking territory in parts of the north near the border in recent weeks, it is a strategy that increasingly looks to have been a miscalculation.
(In a telling moment of irony, Reuters cited a “source close to the Turkish Government”: “[The US Government] were politely but aggressively critical. The attention has focused away from Assad to al Qaeda.”
The news agency never considered how its own headline reinforces that shift in focus.)
Writing in the Turkish daily Hurriyet, Murat Yetkin summarises:
This time the public message to Erdoğan from the Obama administration is by targeting the man in his confidence [Fidan]. It appears that Obama, who is close to a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the way to the Geneva II talks on Syria, doesn’t want to see any last minute surprises from Erdoğan, who doesn’t want to even discuss al-Assad keeping his position.
And if the Turks, despite these statements, still continue with the arms supply?
Well, then, they will be branded as duplicitous and untrustworthy.
That is the real news in both the Wall Street Journal and Ignatius articles.
Ankara is no longer reliable — a reliability now defined by Washington as a withdrawal of military support for the Syrian insurgents.