Retired Brig. Gen. Haldun Solmazturk, who spent many years serving with NATO, tells Al-Monitor, “If there was really a threat to Turkey from Syria, and if there was really concrete intelligence about it, it would go without saying that Turkey would propose putting this on the agenda for the [NATO] foreign ministers meeting.” Yet, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says that Turkey did not put any potential threat to Turkey from Syria on the official agenda when NATO foreign ministers held their regularly scheduled meeting in Brussels on April 1-2.
Turkish officials, including Davutoglu, have been arguing for more than a month that they had received a credible threat to the Tomb of Suleiman Shah, 35 kilometers (24 miles) from the Turkish border inside Syria and the only Turkish territory outside Turkey proper. A recent controversial audio leak of top officials' conversations, however, revealed a different story about Turkish intentions. While Turkey blocked access to YouTube just hours after this leak occurred on March 25, and decreed that even discussing the leaked contents would be treason, there is an ongoing legal debate whether the Turkish government is really acting within the legal boundaries.
“Everyone in NATO well knows how serious Turkey is about these subjects. As a result, no one has expressed [his or her] view on these leaked issues so far,” Davutoglu said on April 2, referring to the leaked surveillance audio. “Our statements are satisfactory enough for everyone. None of my colleagues felt the need to express a thing on related issues.” Davutoglu also met on the sidelines of the NATO meeting with European Union Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule to defend Turkey’s ban of Twitter and YouTube. “Everywhere in the world, each and every country protects its citizens’ rights and takes the necessary precautions when its national interest is targeted,” he said.
In his victory speech in the early hours of March 31 after the local elections, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan echoed the same sentiment. “How could you threaten our national security?” Erdogan said. “Syria is now in a war against us. They are harassing our [military] jets. The Tomb of Suleiman Shah is our sovereign land. Any attack to that piece of land is no different than an attack on the mainland. How could we remain silent to something like that? The traitors are tapping into this meeting and then they serve it [via YouTube] to the world to listen to it.” He added, “Today, my great nation gave a message. They took a clear position against going outside legitimate political means to shape the direction of this country. It behooves me to stress this. The ballot box results are more about who lost than who won.”
Solmazturk offers a different view. “Davutoglu knows better than no other how the current government has used serious foreign policy matters to advance its interests in the domestic agenda. There is no doubt that our bureaucracy warned him not to bring this issue [the Tomb of Suleiman Shah] to be discussed at such a meeting in the absence of solid intelligence or a real threat,” he told Al-Monitor. “I can also say this with confidence as one who spent many years in NATO and whose eyes have seen many confidential documents. There is no justification for the YouTube ban on national security pretexts.
“The damage to national security happens the moment the leak occurs. There is no way to reverse it. And there really is no logic behind preventing Turks from accessing this site when the rest of the world can. How do you protect the national security of this country like this?”
The Turkish Communications Directorate (TIB) blocked YouTube on March 25 upon the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s request without presenting the public any reason. Turkish media reported on April 2 that the TIB made the decision based on Law No. 5651, Article 8, Section 1/b, which addresses crimes disgracing the memory of the founding father of modern-day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This certainly comes as an arbitrary decision.
While stressing that Turkey has been arguing how to deal with those disrespecting Ataturk since the late 1990s, Solmazturk, a prominent analyst on political-military affairs, details why he does not believe the government’s argument about national security, citing how the Ergenekon trials were put together. Those trials put behind bars more than 200 current and retired military officers, labeling them as members of a terrorist organization aiming to bring down the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
“There is nothing new about leaking state secrets. This has been going on since 2010,” Solmazturk told Al-Monitor. “Someone delivered [in January 2010] to Mehmet Baransu of Taraf [a Turkish daily founded in November 2007 that took a sharp critical stand against the military] a suitcase full of 6,000 confidential documents somehow taken from the 1st Army Command. These documents were mixed with fraudulent material, which made up the basis of the Sledgehammer [Balyoz] case. Also, someone or some people entered the law office of retired veteran Lt. Serdar Ozturk [who was put behind bars in relation to the Ergenekon trial in June 2009, and released in March 2014 still pending charges]. They planted 300 confidential documents somehow taken from the headquarters of the chief of general staff.
“There were numerous warnings to the prosecutor's office over the years that there was an organized spy ring here that was able to enter this country’s most secretive corners, and yet they managed to take away these confidential documents from these highly secure places. No one has done a thing so far. Serdar Ozturk wrote a letter directly to the US ambassador in Turkey, and said that [US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah] Gulen is behind these leaks, and that the United States is supporting this spy network. The prime minister is now talking about the Gulenist threat or a parallel state, because it targeted them [AKP officials] in this corruption affair. But if they were serious about the national interest of this country, they would have done something about this long ago.”
Davutoglu said March 27 that the shooting down of a Syrian fighter jet was all about deterrence. “We did not announce our new rules of engagement for them to just be on paper,” he said. “If you allow them to be breached after you declare them, you are fanning the flames of war.” Since that incident, though, the Turkish military continues to report Syrian jet fighters’ continuing intimidation along the border.
While the Turkish government prefers to use scare-mongering tactics by trying to impose heavy psychological pressure on people who oppose the AKP policies by potentially accusing them with treason, Turkey’s longtime allies clearly draw a line in the sand and caution the ruling party to measure its reaction, even at a time when such leaks make people question how to balance the public interest and the right to the sanctity of communications.
United Nations Deputy spokesman Ferhan Haq said on March 27 that all states should refrain from taking actions that would lead to the “further militarization” of the Syrian conflict. Turkey’s allies see no justification of the Twitter and YouTube bans.
“Freedom of sharing information needs to be respected [and] any limitations need to be proportionate,” Fule tweeted last week. And a new resolution was introduced to the US House of Representatives on April 1 calling on the Turkish government to reinstate access for its citizens to Twitter and YouTube.
“Countries that respect human rights and democratic values are stronger, more reliable partners. For this reason, attempts by Prime Minister Erdogan or other Turkish government officials to diminish rule of law or quell perceived challenges to their authority by banning social media is simply unacceptable,” said Bill Keating, D-Mass., a ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, in a news release. “Despite an order from Turkey’s own courts to reverse the ban on Twitter, the Turkish government continues to obstruct social media outlets. Worse, it continues to ban more entities, such as YouTube, from enabling communication among the citizens of Turkey and the rest of the world. The Turkish government will need to do more to demonstrate the strength of its democratic institutions. Certainly, a good first step to restore the trust and faith of the Turkish population as well as the international business community will be to reverse the decision to ban social media within Turkey.”