March 31, 2014
On Thursday, a video was posted on YouTube containing an alleged recording of high-ranking Turkish officials discussing a potential military intervention into Syria in defense of a tiny Turkish exclave 25 miles south of the Turkey-Syria border. In its most damning moment, Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan offers to orchestrate of Gulf of Tonkin-esque false flag attack on the exclave in order to justify a response. The full English transcript can be found here.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, one of four alleged participants in the discussion, confirmed that a meeting had taken place but claimed that the tape had been doctored.
The implications for domestic politics in Turkey, where intervention in Syria is deeply unpopular and key municipal elections took place on Sunday, are so massive that the government blocked all of YouTube and forbid journalists from reporting on the video. The ban follows a similar prohibition on Twitter enacted early last week but overturned on Wednesday.
However, the geopolitical implications are potentially even greater. If Turkey chooses or is drawn into engagement with the Syrian Army, it could fundamentally alter the course of the war. And even if it elects merely to establish an armed stronghold in Syria’s north, other nations may be emboldened to respond in kind.
Home to almost 650,000 Syrian refugees, Turkey has been providing light arms and training to Syrian rebel groups since at least May 2012. Its northern border with Syria has become the primary conduit through which weapons flow from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to opposition forces on the ground.
Turkey has gradually become more and more overt in its support for the Syrian opposition. Just last week, when Syrian rebels launched an operation to seize the last government-controlled border crossing between Turkey and Syria, Turkey provided them with a de facto no-fly zone, shooting down a Syrian fighter jet sent to defend the border towns. Turkey claims the plane had violated its airspace, but it crashed in Syrian territory.
Neither has Turkey been shy about its willingness to defend its tiny exclave in Syria, which inscribes the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather to Ottoman Empire founder Osman I. (For a full rundown of the exclave’s bizarre history, I defer to the inimitable Frank Jacobs.) According to Hurriyet Daily News, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an Islamist rebel group, threatened to attack the exclave this past week. On Tuesday, Turkey’s Ottomaniacial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised publically to do “whatever is necessary” to defend the integrity of the tomb.
In fact, the most interesting part of the leaked Turkish talks isn’t the revelation of military plans—which could have been guessed from Turkey’s prior moves—but the duplicity and dysfunction with which those plans appear to be moving forward. The Turkish officials discuss how to avoid running afoul of international law. They bemoan the resistance of opposition parties in Turkey to military action, which they say has turned national security into a “common, cheap domestic policy outfit.” At one point, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu states, “We’re going to portray this is [sic] Al-Qaeda, there’s no distress there if it’s a matter regarding Al-Qaeda.” At no point do they discuss an exit strategy or seriously consider the potentially serious ramifications of an invasion.
The Turkish officials even harken back to their recent intervention in Iraq, which never received legislative authorization. In 2008, Turkey sent hundreds of troops into Northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish separatist fighters. “How do you think we’ve managed to rally our tanks into Iraq?” asks Sinirlioğlu. “Let me be clear, there was no government decision on that, we have managed that just with a single order.”
What happens now is anyone’s guess. Is the publication of a secret military meeting embarrassing enough to alter plans that have been brewing for years? And if not, will the United States stand by its ally and longtime NATO member as the Syrian conflict festers and regionalizes? In the leak itself, Sinirlioğlu claims that the U.S. distributed plans for a no-fly zone at a recent coordination meeting. The Syrian Civil War is already a quagmire, but if the leak is to be believed, it might soon get a lot worse.