[OPINION] Turkey’s intel agency turned over a Syrian colonel to the Assad regime

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Abdullah Bozkurt

Abdullah Bozkurt

Hakan Fidan, the pro-Iranian Islamist who has been running Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) since May 2010, protected intelligence officers who were involved in the kidnapping and handing over to the Assad regime of a senior Syrian colonel and major who defected to Turkey early in the Syrian civil war. His boss, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, helped him shield his operatives from criminal prosecution when they violated Turkish and international laws.

The victims are Syrian Col. Hussein Moustafa Harmush, one of the architects of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) after his defection to Turkey on June 9, 2011, and Syrian Maj. Mustafa Kassum. They were handed over to the Syrian secret service in September 2011 by MIT agents in a clear violation of Turkish law as well as a flagrant breach of international conventions to which Turkey is party. Kassum was staying in a camp located in the Altınözü district of the southeastern border province of Hatay, and Harmush was sheltered in another camp located in the district of Yayladağı in the same province. The MIT agents who were involved in abducting and turning them over to Syrian regime forces were reportedly paid a bounty of $100,000 for the job.

Except for the fall guy who had worked for 19 years at the intel agency before his reported dismissal in February 2012, none of the leading suspects who played roles in the abduction were held to account, either in the judicial probe or through administrative investigation. Instead, Fidan protected the intelligence officers and tried to spin the story by planting fake news in the Turkish media as if Harmush was tricked into capture by Syrian regime forces when he was trying to infiltrate Syrian territory. Fidan’s family friend, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was the foreign minister at the time, dismissed reports of abduction as “disinformation.” Two senior MIT intelligence officers, Hatay regional director Mehmet A.A. and Adana regional director Nihat B., were immediately called to Intelligence headquarters and protected there from imminent arrest.

On the day the abduction took place, Harmush’s brother İbrahim filed a complaint with the Hatay Police Department, claiming that three people identified as Mete Aslan, Yılmaz Nur and Mehmet Nur picked up the two Syrian officers from the camp and turned them over to the Syrian regime. The Adana Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched a criminal probe into the allegations. Ibrahim Harmush also appealed to Erdoğan’s office on Sept. 8, 2011, asking for his help in ascertaining the whereabouts of his brother. Yet, the Erdoğan government probe reportedly concluded that the colonel might have left Turkey after the government claimed it had found no trace of him. It was clear back then that Erdoğan was sandbagging the criminal probe pursued by the prosecutors.

The nephew of Col. Harmush, identified by the initials I.M.H., who was also a former soldier in the Syrian military, testified to investigators that he was sitting in a park with his uncle, the colonel, at or around 14:00 when Harmush received a phone call from a person who directed the colonel to a meeting place in front of the gendarmerie garrison. He said a person identified as 52-year-old Önder Sığırcıklıoğlu, who came to pick him up in a silver Renault sedan at the rendezvous point, was the same person who had earlier registered their information at the refugee camp. He was working for Turkish intelligence agency MIT at the time.

Phone records also verified this testimony as investigators discovered that the two had previously had several phone exchanges. Accordingly, the Syrian colonel exited the camp with permission from authorities on Aug. 28, 2011 after he talked to the MIT agent at 11:09 in the morning during which the intelligence officer told him he wanted to meet in person. The MIT agent picked up the colonel in the afternoon after the two talked on the phone at 14:17, and picked up the major later on. The testimony of the secret witness, identified only by the initials E.K., that was incorporated into the investigation file corroborated the account and revealed further details. According to this account, Sığırcıklıoğlu, a Turkish national of Arab and Alawite descent, made a plan with the other accomplices (Mete Aslan, Yılmaz Nur and his brother Mehmet Nur), who cut off the vehicle driven by Sığırcıklıoğlu and pretended to have kidnapped the Syrian colonel and major. Sığırcıklıoğlu took the colonel’s phone and had one of his associates call random numbers from his contact list in various districts of Hatay to throw investigators off the abduction trail.

Both Syrian officers were kept in an abandoned building in the town of Yaylıca until nighttime and were later taken on a fishing boat to Syria’s port city of Latakia, where they were handed over to Syrian intelligence agents. The Nur brothers returned to Turkey in the same boat while Aslan traveled back by land. The witness said the suspects were bragging about the job and saying how they were paid handsomely for it. The MIT informant, identified as Erdoğan Ayhan Kit, a businessman who had been an asset for the intelligence agency for years, often met with Aslan, a merchant whose office was alleged to be a meeting place for Syrian government intelligence operatives. During a hearing held on Feb. 26, 2013 in Adana, the witness confirmed his earlier testimony as well.

The court also heard the testimony of the brother of Syrian army major Kassum, identified as Ö.K., who told the court that his brother was sent to a camp in Reyhanlı on Aug. 27, 2011, while his wife and children were kept at another refugee camp in Yayladagi. The major called his contact at Turkish intelligence, listed as E.M., and asked for his help for a family reunion so that he could be together with his family in the same camp. E.M. asked him to show up at a meeting place in Hatay, where he was picked up by another Turkish intelligence officer, identified as E.Ö., after E.M. told him he was running late and that it was okay for him to go with this man in his car. After driving some time, the car was stopped by a gang of seven or eight armed men. They picked up the major and took him to some place in Samandaği, and from there he was put on a boat to Latakia.

In his testimony, the major’s brother Ö.K. also talked about the fate of both Harmush and Kassum and said they were taken on a special plane to Damascus, where they were locked up at the headquarters of Syrian intelligence, the Mukhabarat. After undergoing torture for two days, both of them were transferred to the notorious Saydnaya military prison, two kilometers north of Damascus. Kassum was sentenced to five years, while Harmush was sentenced to life in prison. He talked to his brother after he was taken to Syria and provided the details of the conversation to investigators.

Both testimonies provided by the secret witness and Kassum’s brother were also corroborated with the wiretap and phone records obtained by the prosecutors. The organized crime unit in Adana was already monitoring the criminal gang the MIT officers had been working with at the time. Sığırcıklıoğlu’s phone conversations with gang members were registered on wiretaps that were authorized by the courts. In one wiretap, he told his accomplice on the phone that “it was a good idea to write a report about him fleeing to Gaziantep [another Turkish province near the Syrian border].” In fact, the evidence showed MIT had earlier circulated an alert to the police claiming that Harmush could flee to Gaziantep province from where he was staying as his movements in and out of the camp were restricted and required prior authorization. Sığırcıklıoğlu’s phone conversation with Harmush’s brother Ibrahim was also caught in the wiretap. Ibrahim asked after the whereabouts of the colonel, saying he was last seen with Sığırcıklıoğlu, whose code name was Abu Mahmed. The MIT officer lied to Ibrahim, saying that he dropped the colonel on the way to Gaziantep and claimed the colonel told him that he would flee. Right after this phone conversation, Sığırcıklıoğlu called one of his associates in panic, saying that the authorities had started looking for the colonel. He said the abduction was reported to the office of the district governor and that they had CCTV video footage from traffic cameras. He asked the associate to get him out of the country as soon as possible, and the associate warned the MIT agent that he was revealing too much on the phone. MIT’s internal investigation and the Hatay Governor’s Office’s administrative probe corroborated these accounts as well.

Sığırcıklıoğlu went to Syria on Feb. 3, 2012 to claim the bounty that was reportedly offered by the Syrian government and was detained on Feb. 10, 2012 while entering Turkey with cash stashed in the trunk of his car. He was formally arrested two days after his arraignment. He was charged on two counts of “military and political espionage” as defined in the Turkish Penal Code and the deprivation of liberty through the use of force, threats and deception and was indicted by the chief public prosecutor’s office on July 4, 2012. The case was tried by the Adana 10th High Criminal Court. The court acquitted Sığırcıklıoğlu of espionage charges but convicted him of deprivation of liberty and sentenced him to 16 years, eight months. The Ninth Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the conviction on July 7, 2014. The Constitutional Court also on July 17, 2018 rejected his personal complaint on the violation of his fundamental rights during the trial proceedings.

Kit and Aslan each received a prison sentence of 16 years, eight months, while the Nur brothers were sentenced to eight years, four months.

However, while Sığırcıklıoğlu was fed to prosecutors as a fall guy, Erdoğan ordered the MIT Adana and Hatay regional directors to immediately report in person to MIT headquarters in Ankara to thwart prosecutors’ move to detain them for questioning on their roles. The wiretap records showed Mehmet A.A. calling Sığırcıklıoğlu on the phone and revealing information from the confidential probe that he was spotted on a traffic camera while he was abducting the Syrian colonel. Investigators traced the plate of the car that was used in the abduction to the intelligence agency, and the district governor immediately called MIT director Mehmet A.A. to ask the whereabouts of Col. Harmush. Instead of intervening in the abduction, Mehmet A.A. told Sığırcıklıoğlu that he had been spotted, and Sığırcıklıoğlu shared this information with other gang suspects. All communications were caught on wiretap.

Fidan personally made a trip to Hatay to meet with the Hatay governor on Dec. 3 and 4 to hush up the probe that extended to his office in Ankara and sought his help in burying the investigation. Prosecutors also noted Fidan’s attempt to influence an independent investigation and to meddle in the work of the judiciary. When he failed to stop the probe, Fidan had to cut Sığırcıklıoğlu loose, on Feb. 1, 2013, only two days before Sığırcıklıoğlu’s arrest upon his return from Syria. He was the fall guy, while the other intelligence officers were protected with the help of the Erdoğan government after prosecutors issued detention warrants for two senior intelligence officers who were in hiding as well as the third intelligence agent who was identified by witnesses as H.G. (he was using the assumed name as E.Ö. in the abduction plot).

Incidentally, the Turkish intelligence agency later liberated Sığırcıklıoğlu, who was made the fall guy briefly to appease veteran prosecutors at the time. After his conviction and sentencing to almost 17 years, he was incarcerated in the Osmaniye high security prison, but in the documents his jail term was “mistakenly” written as 10 years, making him eligible for transfer to a semi-open prison, which has relaxed rules for inmates, after serving two-and-a-half years in pre-trial detention. Within a few days, he was ordered to be transferred to the Toprakkale semi-open prison in the same province. Instead of being transported under armed guard, he was released and told to present himself at that prison within 10 hours. He never showed up. It was all part of a scenario designed by MIT to help him escape. In fact, he never really left the agency and is still working for MIT. After all, he was one of the operatives vetting thousands of Syrian military officers who had defected. In the meantime, the identity of secret witness E.K., who had been kept anonymous under court order since 2014, was finally revealed on March 29, 2017 with a judgment by the Adana 5th High Criminal Court.

This is another clandestine intelligence operation of the Erdoğan regime that played into the hands of the Syrian regime and its backers while undermining the legitimate opposition in Syria. It was part of the Erdoğan government’s efforts to control rebel groups by eliminating veteran Syrian military officers who had defected but had questions about the motives of the Turkish government.

At the same time, Erdoğan has been arming jihadist groups including al-Qaeda affiliates and helping splinter groups from the FSA join more radical militias while depriving them of the leadership necessary to lead disparate groups into a coherent opposition bloc. The incident exposes yet another face of the double-dealing Erdoğan, who is notorious for selling out his associates and partners whenever he feels it suits his needs. In this case he needed bloody radical militia groups that would operate as his proxies. Turkish intelligence agency MIT under Fidan has been the main facilitator of the Erdoğan regime’s dirty deals.

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