News / Middle East

Turkish Security Breach Exposes Erdogan Power Struggle

FILE - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a news briefing.
FILE - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a news briefing.
Reuters
Turkey's spymaster discusses possible military intervention in Syria with army and civilian chiefs, and days later their words are broadcast on the internet for all the world to hear.

The breach appeared to highlight a disturbing truth for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan: that Turkey can no longer keep even top-level security planning secret, despite his purge of thousands of officials as part of an effort root out a covert network of enemies he accuses of trying to sabotage the state and topple him.

"This crisis is one of the biggest in Turkish history," a senior government official, who declined to be named, told Reuters. "A serious concern has certainly emerged regarding what follows now. If a meeting such as this has been listened to, others may have. We do not know who is in possession of [the recordings]."

Erdogan was out of public action on Friday, resting a voice strained by campaigning for local elections over the weekend — the first in a string that will decide the future of a man who  has reformed Turkey fundamentally but is now accused by critics of authoritarian and divisive tendencies.

Even without the principal actor, the drama played on over the leaked audio recording that appeared on YouTube on Thursday; by far most serious of a stream of illegal intercepts of state communications, many involving Erdogan himself.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in whose office the security meeting took place, said "everyone and everything within the Foreign Ministry will be investigated with utmost scrutiny" — a measure of the alarm stirred by the recording.

A body close to the Hizmet movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of running a "dirty campaign" of espionage to implicate him in corruption, said suggestions Gulen was involved were "beyond comedy."

The leaking of such sensitive material could also raise alarm among NATO allies who see Turkey as occupying a crucial position on the edge of a volatile Middle East. Telephone conversations between Erdogan and his family have been intercepted; calls from foreign leaders may also be in unknown hands.

The recorded meeting discussed whether to send forces across the Syrian border to secure the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, in an area largely controlled by militant Islamists fighting the Damascus government. Ankara regards the tomb as Turkish territory.

One leftist daily carried the headline "I'll Send Four Men, Fire Eight Rockets," referring to a comment on the recording attributed to intelligence chief Hakan Fidan — one of Erdogan's closest allies — that indicated, if necessary, he could send four men to Syria with eight rockets and fire onto empty land. This, the voice said, could be used to justify Turkish intervention.

Officials, aware that any involvement in Syria would be highly unpopular with Turkish voters, accept the recording is genuine but say it was manipulated in places. Its dissemination on radio and television has been banned in Turkey and the government ordered that the video-sharing site YouTube be shut down.

A crisis erupted in Turkey on Dec. 17 when anti-graft police raided homes and detained businessmen close to Erdogan and sons of ministers. Erdogan responded by purging members of the police force and judiciary he accused of serving Gulen, a former ally who controls a network of schools and businesses and has over decades amassed followers in state institutions and business.

"There are two shocking things in this case," said Sinan Ulgen, Chairman of Istanbul's Edam think tank. "One is the fact that Turkey is now unable to keep a conversation at the highest level in the security establishment ... secret.

"The second shocking thing is that despite every measure they have taken since December 17, including the purge of many thousands of people including police, judiciary and probably other places, this continues to go on."

The recording constituted in effect a message from its unidentified dispatchers, that they were still in business.

Elections

Sunday's local polls will test Erdogan's popularity following the corruption scandal and a heavyhanded police crackdown on anti-government protests in the summer. Failure by Erdogan's AK Party to hold Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city, and the capital Ankara could undermine his authority.

It is unclear yet what effect the corruption scandal and leak will have on the outcome, but government officials argue the recording could work in Erdogan's favor by rallying voters disgusted by the release of state secrets.

Shares and the Turkish lira have been stronger this week on expectation that Erdogan's AK Party will achieve or approach the 40 percent vote of 2009 and that this may help ease the crisis.

Sympathetic media backed Erdogan on Friday. "We condemn the heinous treason against Turkey," a couple of dozen pro-government newspapers and television stations said in a joint statement. "The shadow organization has given itself away."

Erdogan used Gulen's influence in his early years in power to help rein in an army that had toppled four governments in 40 years. Critics suggest, in essence, that having let the wolf into his kitchen he should not be surprised by the outcome.

The present confrontation began when Erdogan moved last year to close Gulen's schools, a source of income and influence. Gulen had criticized Erdogan over deteriorating ties with Israel and over his crackdown on anti-government protests in June.

Erdogan feels duped

Tercan Basturk, board member of the Journalists and Writers Foundation that often speaks for Hizmet — also known as Cemaat — said the movement had nothing to do with the recording.

"How could Cemaat go into a secure room where four diplomats were and listen to them?" he asked. "It's beyond comedy... They are looking for Cemaat under every stone."

A government official, who asked not to be named, said Erdogan felt he had been "duped" by Gulen, who denies any involvement in the police graft investigation or the recent leaks. "The main reason for Erdogan's anger now is this sense of having been deceived. He's taking this very personally."

The Syria recording as posted also alluded to turmoil in state bodies since infighting broke out between Erdogan and Hizmet.

"Currently the state is functioning with a few people and with a few departments able to make proper decisions," Foreign Minister Davutoglu is quoted as saying in discussing the problems of marshalling support for actions.

"Definitely, sir, definitely," Deputy Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff Yasar Guler is quoted as saying.

"Well, are we going to be put off by this?" asks Davutoglu.

"No, we will not be put off, minister, we will not be put off," General Guler is quoted as saying.

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