Turkish Officials Recorded Discussing Military Action in Syria

Turkey’s security chiefs are allegedly overheard discussing creating a pretext for military intervention in Syria.

Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu attends a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, November 18, 2013
Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu attends a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, November 18, 2013 (DoD/Sergeant Aaron Hostutler)

An anonymous YouTube account on Thursday posted what it claimed were audio recordings of Turkey’s security chiefs discussing a military incursion into neighboring Syria. The Foreign Ministry launched an investigation to find out how and by whom the discussion had been leaked. Access to the video sharing website, which is owned by Google, was later blocked in the country.

The two videos purport to have recorded Ahmet Davutoğlu, the foreign minister, deliberating with intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Deputy Chief of Staff Yaşar Güler, as well as other officials, about creating a pretext for intervention in Syria’s civil war. “Justification can be created,” a voice identified as Fidan’s is heard saying. “The matter is to create the will.”

The stated aim of the operation would be to secure the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, in an area of northern Syria that is largely controlled by militant Islamists.

“We will define it as Al Qaeda,” a voice presented as Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu’s says. “When it comes to the Suleyman Shah tomb, it’s about the protection of national soil.”

Turkey threatened two weeks ago to retaliate for any attacks on the tomb which it regards as sovereign Turkish territory under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. Earlier this month, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a breakaway Al Qaeda group, threatened to attack the tomb unless Turkish troops guarding it were withdrawn.

The Turks have long pressed their NATO allies to intervene in Syria’s civil war on behalf of the rebels that are battling the regime of President Bashar Assad. Western allies have been reluctant to, given the presence of radical Islamist fighters in the opposition, and when autonomy for Syria’s Kurds threatened to exacerbate Turkey’s own Kurdish insurgency, the government in Ankara muted its demands.

Recent political turmoil might give Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration reason to seek a distraction abroad. For months, the veteran prime minister, in office for eleven years, has been fighting graft accusations he says were fabricated by supporters of a former ally, the religious leader Fethullah Gülen who lives in the United States. Numerous tapes of telephone conversations posted online suggest Erdoğan himself was involved in corruption. The premier calls them “montages” and claims foreigners are attempting to undermine his government.

With municipal elections due on Sunday — which will be the ruling Islamist’s party first test at the ballot box since millions of Turks took to the streets last summer to protest against Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule — the graft allegations could further destabilize the government if results are poor. Three ministers resigned late last year after their sons had been arrested on corruption charges.

On Sunday, Turkey shot down a Syrian warplane it said had violated Turkish airspace. Syria denied that the plane had crossed. Prime Minister Erdoğan, speaking at an election rally in northwestern Turkey, congratulated the military and said the strike should serve as a warning against further intrusions. “If you violate our border, our slap will be hard,” he said.