Turkey’s Revival of a Dirty ‘Deep State’

Exclusive: NATO keeps backing Turkey, one of its members, despite its aid to the Islamic State and other jihadists fighting Syria’s secular government — and even though Turkey’s erratic President Erdogan may be leading NATO into a risky showdown with Syria’s Russian allies, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Turkey’s embattled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is resurrecting the “deep state” alliance of secret intelligence operatives and extreme rightists that he so notably challenged just a few years ago while putting hundreds of military officers and other opponents on trial for conspiring against Turkish democracy. In a remarkable about-face, Erdogan is now emulating the ruthless tactics of previous authoritarian rulers at the expense of Turkey’s evolution as a liberal state.

Like many of his secular predecessors, Erdogan has reverted to waging an all-out war against radical Kurdish separatists, the PKK. He is dramatically expanding the once discredited National Intelligence Agency, which in years past recruited Mafia criminals and right-wing terrorists to murder Kurdish leaders, left-wing activists and intellectuals. And he appears to be forging an alliance with ultranationalist members of the National Action Party (MHP), who supplied many of the ruthless killers for those murderous operations.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

These developments should alarm U.S. and European leaders. They are ominously anti-democratic trends in a country that once promised to meld the best of Western and Near Eastern traditions. They are also helping to drive Turkey’s secret alliances with Islamist extremists in Syria and its violent opposition to Kurdish groups that are leading the resistance to ISIS in that country.

Erdogan successfully cultivated a democratic image after his moderate Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), gained a two-thirds parliamentary majority in the November 2002 elections. Then in 2008, with public support for his party sagging, Erdogan oversaw the mass indictment of more than 200 former military officers, academics, journalists, businessmen and other opponents of the AKP.

The 2,455-page indictment alleged a vast conspiracy by members of an alleged “Ergenekon terrorist organization,” named after a mythical place in the Altay Mountains, to destabilize Turkish society and overthrow the government.

The alleged Ergenekon plot drew credibility from an all-too-real alliance of intelligence operatives, criminals and rightist terrorists exposed in the aftermath of the so-called “Susurluk Incident.” A car crash in the Turkish town of Susurluk in 1996 connected one of the country’s leading heroin traffickers and terrorists with a member of the conservative ruling party, the head of the counterinsurgency police, and the Minister of Interior.

Subsequent investigations linked this “deep state” network to a former NATO program, sometimes known by the name of its Italian version, “Operation Gladio”, to foment guerrilla resistance in case of a Soviet occupation of Turkey.

In contrast to the legitimate revelations that grew out of the Susurluk affair, the Ergenekon proceeding at times resembled a Soviet show trial. A court handed down life sentences to a former head of the Turkish military and several top generals, the heads of various intelligence organizations, a prominent secular ultranationalist, secular journalists, and a prominent deputy from a secular opposition party, among others.

A separate proceeding, known as “Sledgehammer,” convicted more than 300 secular military officers of involvement in an alleged coup plot against the AKP government in 2003.

Critics accused the Erdogan regime of using the cases to neutralize its potential rivals as part of its broader suppression of political dissent.

“The intimidation and the number of arrests have steadily risen in the last 10 years,” Der Spiegel observed in 2013. “Many journalists no longer dare to report what’s really happening, authors avoid making public appearances and government critics need bodyguards. The anti-terrorism law is an effective instrument of power for the government as the supposed terrorist threat is an accusation that’s hard to disprove. It plays on a deep-rooted fear among Turks that someone is trying to destabilize and damage the nation.”

The two big trials that fanned that fear were based on falsified evidence and a politicized judicial system. The injustice was effectively recognized by Istanbul’s high criminal court in 2014 when it freed the former army chief of staff convicted in the Ergenekon case. In March 2015, a prosecutor admitted that evidence submitted in the Sledgehammer case was “fake” and 236 convicted suspects were acquitted.

However, just as Erdogan had used those two cases to purge the Turkish power structure of his secular critics, so he used the discrediting of those cases as an excuse to purge supporters of another rival, the exiled moderate Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. Erdogan accused them of terrorism and of creating a “parallel state” to challenge his rule. The crackdown followed judicial actions and news leaks, attributed to Gülen followers, that implicated Erdogan’s family and supporters in high-level corruption. As the New York Times observed, Erdogan turned his back on those show trials “for the simple reason that the same prosecutors who targeted the military with fake evidence are now going after him.”

Now, in a complete reversal of his previous warnings about the dangers of the deep state, Erdogan is actively cultivating the very institutions that were at its core.

For example, the government is planning a 48 percent increase in spending for the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) in 2016, on top of a 419 percent increase over the past decade. The new money is slated to pay for construction of a big new headquarters building and to expand the agency’s operations.

According to Turkish expert Pinar Tremblay, “What we are observing here is a national intelligence agency that has become a prominent player in the decision-making process for Turkish politics. [MIT head Hakan] Fidan acts as a shadow foreign minister. He is present in almost all high-level meetings with the president and prime minister. It is an open secret that both the president and the prime minister trust Fidan more than any other bureaucrat.”

After MIT trucks were caught in 2013 and 2014 smuggling ammunition, rocket parts, and mortar shells to radical Islamic groups in Syria, Erdogan’s allies put police and other officials involved in the raids on trial for allegedly conspiring with Gülen against the government.

A recent report also suggest that Erdogan is also seeking support for his Syrian adventures from members of the National Action Party (MHP), sometimes known as the Grey Wolves. Once openly neo-fascist in ideology, the party figured prominently in terrorist violence in the 1970s and 1980s with backing from military and police officials. Mehmet Ali Agca, the terrorist who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, was a member of the Grey Wolves.

Members of a youth branch of the MHP are reportedly now fighting in Syria to support that country’s Turkish ethnic minority, the Turkmen, against Syrian Kurds. (The Turkmen are also being armed by the MIT.) At least one MHP notable was killed recently by a Russian bombing raid; one of the mourners at his funeral was the Turkish gunman who murdered the pilot of the Russian jet shot down by Turkey in November.

A leading Turkish expert on the Grey Wolves, journalist Kemal Can, says they are drawn to supporting the Turkmen less for ideological reasons than because of state recruitment. “I think that, directly or indirectly, the state link is the decisive one,” he said. “The ultranationalists are the most fertile pool for secret operations.”

Many members of the MHP are also drawn to the cause by their violent opposition to the Kurds and other non-Turkish minority groups.

After PKK militants attacked Turkish soldiers and police last summer and fall, Grey Wolves attacked 140 offices of the HDP, the Peoples’ Democratic Party which supports the rights of Kurds and other minorities, according to the leftist Turkish journalist Sungur Savran, setting many offices on fire:

“Ordinary Kurds were hunted on the streets of the cities and towns of the Turkish-dominated western parts of the country, intercity buses stopped and stoned, and Kurdish seasonal workers attacked collectively, their houses and cars burnt down, and they themselves driven away en masse.”

Such polarizing violence suited the needs of Erdogan’s AKP party, which wants to eliminate the HDP from parliament in order to gain the super-majority it needs to revise the constitution to enhance Erdogan’s powers as president.

Last September, intriguingly, one leader of the ultranationalist MHP urged restraint against ordinary Kurds, saying that “equating the PKK and our Kurdish-origin siblings is a blind trap” that would ensure wider ethnic conflict. Further, he claimed that groups acting in the name of the Grey Wolves to attack Kurds were actually “Mafia” fronts for President Erdogan.

His claim about the “Mafia” may have been more than metaphorical. Following Erdogan’s recent denunciation of hundreds of Turkish academics as “traitors” for protesting the government’s vicious crackdown on Kurdish communities, an ultranationalist organized crime boss who was briefly imprisoned for his alleged role in the Ergenekon conspiracy but is today chummy with Erdogan promised to “take a shower” in “the blood of those so-called intellectuals.”

So there you have it: The Erdogan regime has revived an alliance of intelligence officials, right-wing ultranationalists and even organized criminals to crush Kurdish extremism, to cow political critics, and to support radical Islamists in Syria.

The Erdogan regime, once the great scourge of alleged anti-democratic conspirators, has recreated the Turkish deep state as part of a menacing power grab. It represents a direct threat not only to Turkish democracy, but to Turkey’s neighbors and NATO allies, who will bear the consequences of Erdogan’s ever-more risky, erratic and self-serving policies.

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]

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4 comments for “Turkey’s Revival of a Dirty ‘Deep State’

  1. Abe
    February 10, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    the ‘4+1’ – Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, plus Hezbollah – is now winning decisive facts on the ground. The break down; there won’t be regime change in Damascus. Yet no one broke the news to the Turks and Saudis.

    ‘Sultan’ Erdogan is wallowing in a sea of desperation. He continues to divert the gravely serious issues at stake to his own war against the PYD – the umbrella organization of the Syrian Kurds – and the YPG (People’s Protection Units, their military wing). Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu wanted the PYD not only banned from Geneva but they want it smashed on the ground, as they see the PYD/YPG as “terrorists” allied to the PKK.

    Yet what is ‘Sultan’ Erdogan going to do? Defy the recently arrived 4G++ Sukhoi Su-35S fighters – which are scaring the hell out of every NATO Dr. Strangelove? The Turkish Air Force putting its bases on “orange alert” may scare the odd vagrant dog at best. The same applies to NATO Secretary-General, figurehead Jens Stoltenberg, pleading to Russia “to act responsibly and fully respect NATO airspace.”

    Moscow is going after the Turkmen with a vengeance and at the same time providing air support to the PYD west of the Euphrates. That hits the ‘Sultan’ in his heart of hearts; after all Erdogan has threatened multiple times that a PYD/YPG advance west of the Euphrates is the ultimate red line.

    An already scared NATO won’t support the folly of an Erdogan war against Russia – as much as US and UK neocons may crave it; as NATO decisions must be unanimous, the last thing EU powers Germany and France want is yet another Southwest Asia war. NATO may deploy the odd Patriot missiles in southern Anatolia and the odd AWACs to support the Turkish Air Force. But that’s it.

    Pick your favorite regime change

    ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, meanwhile, continues to profit from its own Jihadi highway across a 98 kilometer stretch of Turkish/Syrian border, especially in Jarablus and Al Rai across from Gaziantep and Kilis in Turkey.

    Taking a cue from Israel, Ankara is building a wall – 3.6 meters high, 2.5 meters wide – covering the stretch between Elbeyli and Kilis, essentially for propaganda purposes. Because the Jihadi Highway, for all practical purposes, remains open – even as Turkish Armed Forces may apprehend the odd trespasser (always released). We’re talking about a monster smuggler/soldier scam; as much as $300 change hands for each night crossing and a noncommissioned Turkish officer may earn as much as $2,500 to look the other way for a few minutes.

    The real question is why Gaziantep is not under a curfew imposed from Ankara, with thousands of Turkish Special Forces actually fighting a “war on terra” on the spot. That’s because Ankara and provincial authorities couldn’t give a damn; the real priority is Erdogan’s war on the Kurds.

    Why the ‘Sultan of Chaos’ is freaking out
    By Pepe Escobar
    https://www.rt.com/op-edge/331279-erdogan-syria-aleppo-turkey/

    • John
      February 11, 2016 at 1:50 pm

      Why is it that Western jounalists, even usually good ones, always talk about the YPG, and always neglect to mention the YPJ?

      Is it that hard for them to understand that some of the best front-line fighters against Daesh are women?

  2. Tristan
    February 11, 2016 at 3:54 am

    It now becomes the true Great Game. As the U.S. and its European political/military proxies continue to dance to the tune struck by the globalized financial elites (which are institutions that are fundamentally and in reality bankrupt and criminal). The realization that we are on the precipitous path to global destruction in the name of the U.S. dominated Free Market system, which is corrupted by the idea that the U.S. is indeed exceptional and indispensable, is on the horizon. This results in the mindset policy guidelines, the philosophy, that the U.S. is thus required to police and control the planet. This resulting in the present glorified and endlessly propagandized system of global dominance based on economic and actual warfare, ie; unrestrained capitalism in its unimpeded goal of profit by imposing costs and debt on others via whatever means, is at hand.

    War and elections are the products offered by the supposed beacon of democracy, the “Shinning City Upon the Hill” which now, cancerous, has transformed the semblance of what is purported to be a democracy into a slave state where the ultimate goal is to further the nation in wars far flung and unending in the search of profits. The policy which apparently guides the U.S. and its NATO proxies is “war is peace” and “ignorance is knowledge”.

    The foolish web of greed is now empowered with the web of imperial design. The fascist intertwined nature of our present state, the privatization of the public domain in the name of capitalism is unable to be ignored. The hubris which infects the U.S. political elite class, driven by the endless greed of their globalized corporate benefactors and the conniving lesser supplicants, results in policies which are confounding to a true diplomat and are outrageous when viewed as the object of these policies.

    The U.S.’s Turkey, Israel, and Saudi allies are seeking regional control in order to further enrich the rulers of each of these nations. The costs will be borne by their convenient ally, the U.S. and its proxy, NATO. As we are seeing the U.S. political class is completely out matched by both its international “advisories” (due perhaps to a myopia caused by unmitigated greed) and more provocatively being see by rational eyes as played by its supposed allies.

    In the end the dangerous situation that is in play in Syria and its environs is only one end of a chess board that some players view as a checker board. The potential for disaster is enormous.

    • Abe
      February 11, 2016 at 12:39 pm

      Documents prepared by US Congress researchers as early as 2005 revealed that the US government was actively weighing regime change in Syria long before the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, challenging the view that US support for the Syrian rebels is based on allegiance to a “democratic uprising” and showing that it is simply an extension of a long-standing policy of seeking to topple the government in Damascus. Indeed, the researchers made clear that the US government’s motivation to overthrow the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is unrelated to democracy promotion in the Middle East. In point of fact, they noted that Washington’s preference is for secular dictatorships (Egypt) and monarchies (Jordan and Saudi Arabia.) The impetus for pursuing regime change, according to the researchers, was a desire to sweep away an impediment to the achievement of US goals in the Middle East related to strengthening Israel, consolidating US domination of Iraq, and fostering free-market, free enterprise economies. Democracy was never a consideration.

      The researchers revealed further that an invasion of Syria by US forces was contemplated following the US-led aggression against Iraq in 2003, but that the unanticipated heavy burden of pacifying Iraq militated against an additional expenditure of blood and treasure in Syria. As an alternative to direct military intervention to topple the Syrian government, the United States chose to pressure Damascus through sanctions and support for the internal Syrian opposition.

      The documents also revealed that nearly a decade before the rise of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra that the US government recognized that Islamic fundamentalists were the main opposition to the secular Assad government

      What US Congress Researchers Reveal About Washington’s Designs on Syria
      By Stephen Gowans
      https://gowans.wordpress.com/2016/02/10/what-us-congress-researchers-reveal-about-washingtons-designs-on-syria/

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