BACKGROUND: In the late afternoon of January 1, 2014, the local Gendarmerie in the Kırıkhan district of Hatay province of Turkey received an anonymous tip-off that a truck was illegally transporting weapons towards the Reyhanlı border crossing into Syria. The Gendarmerie notified the Kırıkhan Public Prosecutor who issued an order for the truck to be stopped and searched. Gendarmerie officers duly intercepted the truck and a car that appeared to be escorting it. The occupants of the car informed the officers that they were members of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT), that the contents of the truck were a state secret and that they should be allowed to proceed. The Gendarmerie officers insisted that they should be allowed to search the truck. The result was a standoff. One of the MİT personnel appears to have notified someone in Ankara, presumably by cell phone. As the standoff continued, the Gendarmerie officers received orders from both their own regional command and Hatay Governor’s office instructing them not to search the truck but to allow it to proceed. The officers complied with the orders.
At around 07.30 on January 19, 2014, the Gendarmerie headquarters in the eastern Mediterranean province of Adana received a tipoff that trucks carrying explosives and munitions would transit the province later that morning on their way to Syria. The Gendarmerie notified the Adana Public Prosecutor who issued an order for the trucks to be stopped and searched. At around 12.00 Gendarmerie officers intercepted the trucks and a car that appeared to be escorting it. The occupants of the car informed the officers that they were members of MİT. They refused to provide any identification and attempted to prevent the trucks from being searched. After a scuffle, the drivers of the trucks and the occupants of the car were taken into custody. A search of the trucks found crates of weapons and ammunition. As is standard procedure, the search was recorded on video camera. After several hours, the Adana Governor issued an order for the trucks, car and all of their occupants to be released.
The incidents, particularly the one of January 19, received widespread coverage in the Turkish media. Officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) issued public statements that the trucks had been carrying humanitarian aid to Turkmen villages in northern Syria. Erdoğan, the then prime minister who became president in August 2014, described any claims to the contrary as a conspiracy by followers of his erstwhile ally and now bitter enemy, the exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen.
The incidents in Hatay and Adana occurred at a time when Gülen’s followers had begun to post on the internet covert recordings of conversations involving Erdoğan and his close associates apparently discussing fixing state contracts and influencing the outcome of court cases. As a result, it is possible that the original tip-offs were an attempt by some of Gülen’s followers to embarrass Erdoğan and the AKP by demonstrating that their repeated denial that Turkey was supplying weapons to Syrian rebels was a lie. However, the identity of who supplied the information does not change whether or not the information was true. Indeed, the reactions of Erdoğan and the AKP to the incidents in Hatay and Adana leave no doubt that they believed they needed to hide something. It is difficult to see how the dispatch of “humanitarian aid” to Syria could be considered a state secret, particularly for a government which repeatedly trumpets the assistance it has provided to Syrian civilians displaced by the civil war.
More disturbingly, over the following weeks, both the two prosecutors and all of the Gendarmerie personnel involved in the interception of the trucks in Hatay and Adana were removed from their posts and charged with conspiring to undermine the government. On May 8, 2014, prosecutors called for 13 of the accused Gendarmerie officers to be sentenced to life in prison.
However, the indictments against the prosecutors contain no evidence that they had prior warnings of the tip-offs or that they knew them to be false. Under such circumstances, the prosecutors would have been guilty of a dereliction of duty if they had failed to take the tip-offs seriously. It is also very difficult to see what else the Gendarmerie officers could have done. The written orders from the prosecutors to intercept the trucks are on the record. Under Turkish law, if the Gendarmerie officers had refused to implement a prosecutor’s orders they would have faced criminal charges.
IMPLICATIONS: In January 2015, official documents related to the interception of the trucks on January 19, 2014 – including the sworn testimonies of those who had been briefly taken into custody – were leaked onto the internet. In his statement, one of the truck drivers described how it was not the first time that MİT had employed him to transport weapons to Syria. He denied knowing which rebel group in Syria had received the weapons. But he said that the trucks had previously always first been loaded in Ankara and then he and the other drivers had been summoned to drive them across Anatolia to no man’s land on the other side of the Reyhanlı border crossing, where the weapons were reloaded onto Syrian trucks driven by Syrian drivers. However, for the convoy that was intercepted on January 19, 2014, he and the other drivers had been present when the trucks were loaded directly from an aircraft that had just landed at Ankara’s Esenboğa airport. The Turkish government made no attempt to deny the authenticity of the documents. Instead, it secured a court order imposing a news blackout on the leaks and made their publication in Turkey a criminal offense.
However, the ongoing court cases against those involved in the interception of the trucks has meant that the issue has remained on the public agenda. On May 12, 2015, in an interview with the pro-AKP daily newspaper Yeni Şafak, Erdoğan again insisted that the trucks had merely been carrying humanitarian aid and lambasting those who argued otherwise: “If they have any integrity then they are obliged to prove it,” declared Erdoğan.
On May 29, 2015, the anti-AKP daily newspaper Cumhuriyet did just that, posting on its webpage the video taken during the search of the trucks on January 19, 2014. The video clearly showed that they were carrying weapons and ammunition. On May 30, 2015, during an interview on national television, President Erdoğan warned that Cumhuriyet and its editor-in-chief Can Dündar would “pay a heavy price” for their impudence. On June 2, Erdoğan’s lawyers filed a petition with the Public Prosecutor in Ankara calling for Dündar to be sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus an additional 42 years for crimes ranging from “forming a criminal organization” to “violating secrecy”, “making available information related to state security”, “political and military espionage” and “trying to overthrow the government.”
Opposition parties and anti-AKP journalists have claimed that the weapons in the trucks were being supplied to the so-called “Islamic State”. This appears unlikely. In fact, although it once believed that it had reached a modus vivendi with the IS – an illusion that collapsed in June 2014 when the organization overran the Turkish Consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul, taking 49 personnel hostage – relations have always been strained. In contrast, the AKP has long used MİT to maintain contacts with other extremist Islamist groups active in the Syrian civil war, such as the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. There have also been instances where Turkey has provided military support to extremist Islamist groups in the war against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In May 2014 a suspected Islamist extremist opened fire on Turkish traffic police in the southern province of Niğde, killing two officers. The assailant was apprehended at the scene. In order to determine his organizational affiliation and identify any criminal associates, investigators subsequently tapped all of the numbers found in his cell phone. In February 2015, prosecutors presented their case, including transcripts of all of the wiretaps – without, apparently, first reading them themselves. For example, during the failed attempt by a coalition of rebel forces – including extremist Islamist organizations – to retake the northwestern Syrian town of Kassab in June 2014, militants in Syria can be heard expressing their gratitude for Turkish artillery strikes against Syrian government forces. They then ask for fresh artillery strikes against Syrian government units, promising to send the coordinates to Turkish officials using the WhatsApp messaging service. The militants also refer to Turan Yılmaz, the governor of the Turkish district of Yayladağ on the Syrian border, allowing a coalition of small Islamist extremist groups to transit Turkish territory and attack Syrian government forces in the rear. On February 11, 2015, in response to questions from Turkish journalists, Yılmaz confirmed that he had allowed the militants to transit Turkish territory, explaining that he had just been following orders from Ankara.
CONCLUSIONS: On May 20, 2015, during an address in Washington, D.C., İbrahim Kalın, Erdoğan’s foreign policy adviser, vehemently denied that Turkey had ever supplied weapons to extremist Islamist groups in Syria. Following the revelations in Cumhuriyet on May 29, 2015, AKP officials privately insisted that, if weapons were ever sent to Syria, they must have gone to Syrian Turkmen villages for their own self-defense. Neither of these explanations is convincing.
If the AKP was providing arms to Turkmen villages, it is difficult to understand why it would have chosen to do so through Reyhanlı. In late 2013 and early 2014, the area on the other side of the Reyhanlı border gate was controlled by the extremist Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham. It is difficult to imagine that Ahrar al-Sham would have allowed successive convoys of Syrian trucks driven by Syrian drivers and loaded with weapons and ammunition to cross territory under its control on their way to Turkmen villages – particularly as there are several other border crossings where Turkey could have supplied the Turkmen villages directly without transiting territory held by extremists.
Perhaps even more disturbing have been the reactions of Erdoğan and the AKP government. It is difficult to talk any longer of Turkey – as its constitution insists – being governed by the rule of law. But it would also be a mistake to regard the situation as being static. There is no precedent for a Turkish president presenting members of the theoretically independent Turkish judicial system with what amounts to an indictment against the editor of a newspaper. Yet few observers of recent events in Turkey were surprised by Erdoğan’s petition. Indeed, there is now a danger of complacency and becoming inured to Erdoğan’s excesses.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.