October 12, 2013

Turkey spymaster pulls the strings in Syria

Source: Gulf News

Istanbul: On a rainy May day, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan led two of his closest advisers into the Oval Office for what both sides knew would be a difficult meeting.

It was the first face-to-face between Erdogan and US President Barack Obama in almost a year. Obama delivered what US officials describe as an unusually blunt message: The US believed Turkey was letting arms and fighters flow into Syria indiscriminately and sometimes to the wrong rebels, including jihadists.

Seated at Erdogan’s side was the man at the centre of what caused the US’s unease, Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s powerful spymaster and a driving force behind its efforts to supply the rebels and topple Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, Fidan, little known outside the Middle East, has emerged as a key architect of a Turkish regional security strategy that has tilted the interests of the longtime US ally in ways sometimes counter to those of the US.

“Hakan Fidan is the face of the new Middle East,” says James Jeffrey, who recently served as US ambassador in Turkey and Iraq. “We need to work with him because he can get the job done,” he says. “But we shouldn’t assume he is a knee-jerk friend of the US, because he is not.”

Fidan is one of three spy chiefs jostling to help their countries fill a leadership vacuum created by the upheaval and by America’s tentative approach to much of the region.

One of his counterparts is Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, who has joined forces with the Central Intelligence Agency in Syria but who has complicated US policy in Egypt by supporting a military takeover there.

The other is Iran’s Major General Qasim Sulaimani, commander-in-chief of the Quds Forces, the branch of the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps that operates outside Iran and whose direct military support for Al Assad has helped keep him in power.

Rise to prominence

Fidan’s rise to prominence has accompanied a notable erosion in US influence over Turkey. Washington long had cozy relations with Turkey’s military, the second-largest army in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).

But Turkey’s generals are now subservient to Erdogan and his closest advisers, Fidan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who are using the Arab Spring to shift Turkey’s focus toward expanding its regional leadership, say current and former US officials.

At the White House meeting, the Turks pushed back at the suggestion that they were aiding radicals and sought to enlist the US to aggressively arm the opposition, the US officials briefed on the discussions say.

Turkish officials this year have used meetings like this to tell the Obama administration that its insistence on a smaller-scale effort to arm the opposition hobbled the drive to unseat Al Assad, Turkish and US officials say.

Fidan is the prime minister’s chief implementer.

Since he took over Turkey’s national-intelligence apparatus, the Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, or MIT, in 2010, Fidan has shifted the agency’s focus to match Erdogan’s.

Mixed reactions

His growing role has met a mixture of alarm, suspicion and grudging respect in Washington, where officials see him as a reliable surrogate for Erdogan in dealing with broader regional issues — the futures of Egypt, Libya and Syria, among them — that the Arab Spring has brought to the bilateral table.

Fidan raised concerns three years ago, senior US officials say, when he rattled Turkey’s allies by allegedly passing to Iran sensitive intelligence collected by the US and Israel.

More recently, Turkey’s Syria approach, carried out by Fidan, has put it at odds with the US. Both countries want Al Assad gone. But Turkish officials have told the Americans they see an aggressive international arming effort as the best way.

The cautious US approach reflects the priority it places on ensuring that arms don’t go to the jihadi groups that many US officials see as a bigger threat to American interests than Al Assad.

As radical Islamists expand into northern Syria, Turkish officials have begun to recalibrate their policy — concerned not about US complaints but about the threat to Turkey’s security, say US and Turkish officials.

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