Thursday, July 14, 2016
Turkey’s ‘Deep State’ Has a Secret Back Channel to Assad
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently patched up ties with Russia and Israel. Are a couple of nationalist politicians laying the groundwork for a deal with Syria’s strongman?
Turkish Premier Minister Binali Yildirim
In the past month, Turkey has worked to turn two old rivals into new friends. On June 27, Turkish officials announced a deal normalizing relations with Israel after a six-year rift in the wake of the deadly Mavi Marmara incident. That day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also expressed regret to Russia over the downing of a Russian warplane in November 2015, which paved the way for the two countries to patch up their relationship.
The fate of Syria looms large over Turkey’s foreign-policy “reset.”
Turkey cut all diplomatic ties with Syria in September 2011, after Assad refused to institute reforms to defuse the growing protest movement against his rule. Since then, Turkey has been supporting the Syrian opposition, which aims to topple the Assad regime, and hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees on its soil. A small, left-wing nationalist political party now claims that the rising refugee crisis, Russia’s heavy-handed military campaign in Syria, and a powerful Syrian Kurdish militia’s land grab in the northern part of the country leave Turkey no choice but to engage with the Assad regime. In fact, the leaders of that party already claim to be passing messages between Turkish and Syrian government officials.
The Homeland Party (), a nationalist movement with an anti-Western and anti-American platform, is chaired by Dogu Perincek, a well-known socialist politician in Turkey; its vice chair is Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakki Pekin, the former head of the Turkish Armed Forces’ Military Intelligence. Perincek and Pekin told that they had meetings with members of the governments of Russia, China, Iran, and Syria during the last year and conveyed messages they received during these visits to high-ranking Turkish military and Foreign Ministry officials.
Perincek and Pekin — a socialist leader and an army general, respectively — may seem like something of an odd couple. Their political collaboration started in prison, as both men were detained in 2011 in relation to the Ergenekon case, which alleged that a network belonging to the “deep state” was plotting a military coup against the elected government. Both men share a staunch Kemalist political outlook based on a very strict adherence to secularism and Turkish nationalism, as well as an “anti-imperialist” outlook that makes them wary of American and Western influence over Turkish politics. In 2016, the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned convictions in the Ergenekon trials, ruling that the “Ergenekon terror organization” did not exist at all and that evidence had been collected illegally.
Perincek and Pekin first met Assad in Damascus in February 2015. During this meeting, Perincek said, both parties agreed on “the need of Turkey and Syria to fight separatist and fanatical terror groups together.”
Pekin and other retired senior Turkish officers who are also members of the Homeland Party, Rear Adm. Soner Polat and Maj. Gen. Beyazit Karatas, subsequently visited Damascus three times. Pekin said that during these visits — which took place in January, April, and May — the delegation met with several of the most influential security chiefs, diplomats, and political officials in the Syrian government. They included the head of the Syrian General Security Directorate, Mohammed Dib Zaitoun; Ali Mamlouk, the head of the National Security Bureau; Foreign Minister Walid Muallem; Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad; and Abdullah al-Ahmar, assistant secretary-general of the Syrian Baath Party.
The main theme of these meetings, according to Pekin, was “[h]ow to prepare the ground for Turkey and Syria to resume diplomatic relations and political cooperation.”
According to the retired Turkish army general, his meeting with Mamlouk, Syria’s powerful security chief, reached directly to the top of the state.
Ceren Kenar is an Istanbul-based journalist working for the Turkish daily .
This article was published first by Foreign Policy on 12 July 2016