Did Powerful Elements in Turkey Plan a False Flag Attack to Drag the Country into War with Syria?
It’s no secret that since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began three years ago, the Turkish government has sheltered and helped to arm the rebels seeking the Syrian regime’s downfall in an effort to boost its regional clout. But nobody suspected that Turkey wanted to initiate a false flag attack to justify armed intervention in Syria—until a leaked tape seemed to confirm just that.
Now, the robust support Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, has given the rebels could backfire as the fallout from the leaked tape escalates. The tape is adding to Erdogan’s woes as a corruption investigation into Erdogan and his inner circle continues and an intense power struggle makes waves in the country.
On March 27, an audio tape with mysterious origins was uploaded to YouTube. The recording purported to be from a secret meeting between top Turkish security officials discussing the situation in Syria and armed intervention in the country. The tape mentions the possibility that Turkey would orchestrate an attack on Turkish soil and on a Syrian site extremely important to Turkey, and then use that attack to justify intervention in the Syrian civil war. In response to the tape being uploaded, the government banned YouTube, just a week after it banned Twitter. The government blames the Internet sites for providing platforms for its opponents.
The same day the tape came out, Ahmet Davutoglu, the country’s foreign minister, confirmed that the meeting between him, intelligence head Hakan Fidan and top military official Yasar Guler had taken place. Davutoglu claimed the tape was doctored. But Erdogan did not dispute the authenticity of the tape at a political rally he attended, where he told the crowd: “They even leaked a national security meeting. This is villainous, this is dishonesty... Who are you serving by doing audio surveillance of such an important meeting?"
The tape is riveting. The conversation was about the tomb of Suleyman Shah, a historic figure whose family led the Ottoman Empire hundreds of years ago, when the Turks were at the height of power. Shah’s tomb is located in Aleppo, Syria, but is guarded by Turkish soldiers.
Last week, the Turkish government threatened to strike back at anyone who touched the tomb, after rival rebel groups—the extremist Al Qaeda breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other groups—clashed in the area. The battles between the groups was just the latest in rebel infighting. Many rebel groups see ISIL as an armed group that damages their cause with their harsh fundamentalist rule, and they charge it is collaborating with the Assad regime so the government could paint all rebels as extremists.
On the tape, officials float planning an attack themselves. “This attack must be seen as an opportunity for us,” Davutoglu says, according to an English translation posted by the International Business Times. Fidan then says: “I'll send four men from Syria, if that's what it takes. I'll make up a cause of war by ordering a missile attack on Turkey; we can also prepare an attack on Suleyman Shah Tomb if necessary.”
The officials then discuss pinning the blame for the Turkish-planned attack on ISIL, and claiming that ISIL did the attack in coordination with Assad. That accusation has increasingly been voiced by Syrian rebel groups. While there’s no smoking gun pointing to that coordination, the Assad regime has nurtured some of the jihadists that now fight his regime and allowed radical extremists to escape from prison at the start of the revolt in 2011. In turn, this allowed Assad to paint his opposition solely as a bunch of crazed religious fanatics.
If Turkey’s plans for armed intervention came to fruition—unlikely for now, given that the apparent plans were exposed–it would mark the next step in the country’s already robust role in the civil war. Turkey is the main coordinator for the arms and supplies flowing to Syrian rebels, some of whom are radical jihadists, though the country has reportedly backed off of supporting those groups in recent months. Working with the CIA and Gulf Arab states, Turkey has allowed military cargo flights to land near Ankara and other airports.
The leaked tape has emerged at a particularly trying time for Erdogan and his allies. Last year, his government was rocked by anti-government protests first tied to plans to bulldoze a park in favor of more developments. More recently, other leaks of audio recordings have pointed to possible corruption involving Erdogan himself. The prime minister has claimed that the leaks are emanating from a rival, the Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric Fethulla Gulen, who commands a global empire of media outlets, schools and more and has considerable influence within the Turkish government. The two used to be allies, and worked together to lessen the military’s influence in Turkey. But that alliance has soured in recent years.
Erdogan points to his electoral mandate, and this week, his favored candidates won municipal elections in what many saw as a test of his clout. Still, it’s undeniable his rule has sharply divided the country, with many young people bristling at his authoritarianism and economic policies.
The Syria tape leak won’t help. The overwhelming majority of Turks, leery of being drawn into a war, are against intervention in Syria.