Intelligence fiasco by Turkey, U.S., plays in Syria's and Iran's favor
Turkey’s interception on Oct. 10, of a Syrian Air A320 transport aircraft, allegedly carrying key air defense radar equipment for Syria from Russia, was initially portrayed as a major intelligence coup by Turkey and an indicator that Syria’s and Iran’s air defense networks had been seriously weakened.
However, highly-placed sources in Ankara, Moscow, and Damascus have confirmed to GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs that the reporting on the issue was Turkish disinformation, but, more importantly, that it may have been a direct result of U.S. pressure to intercept the aircraft and force it to land at Ankara’s Esenboga airport. In fact the aircraft was not carrying air defense radar equipment or military cargo.
The incident began to backfire by Oct. 18. The fact that the incident had been either a mistake on the part of the Turkish Government, or manufactured — because the U.S. Government had been discreetly pushing Turkey into this specific action — may well worsen U.S.-Turkish relations and start to rebuild, to the degree possible, Turkish-Russian relations.
Ankara had initially attempted to portray the incident as a sign of Turkish resolve and efficient operational capability, in the period immediately following military activity between Turkish and Syrian forces on their joint border. However, there was subsequently strong evidence that the U.S., and Milli Istihbarat Teskilati [MIT)] Director Hakan Fidan, may have set the stage for the interception of the Syrian Air A320 just more than a month later.
Significantly, the Erdogan Government, and probably MIT, had acted on Oct. 10, like a well-oiled publicity machine, leaking “details” of their coup to the local and international media. Even opposition news outlets in Turkey showed admiration for the Turkish military’s handling of the incident. One extensive piece, in Taraf newspaper (and online), by writer Emru Uslu on Oct. 15, was quick, in its conclusions, to point to the imminent end of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, and an end to Iran’s effective air defense network.
White House insistence, had pushed Turkey to make the interception of the aircraft and that the White House had possibly misled Ankara as to the contents of the cargo.
Certainly, the Turkish Government subsequently — on Oct. 18 — and discreetly tried to let the matter drop, but the Russian Government immediately stated publicly that the original Turkish claims had been incorrect. Russian Government spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Oct. 18, in Moscow: “The Turkish side does not in principle question the legitimacy of the cargo that was seized but is unhappy with the transportation notification procedure. Our Turkish partners have now effectively retracted the initial allegations that there was ammunition on board.”
The parts in question were, in fact, spare parts for the radar in the Aleppo civilian airport (which was damaged by Turkey-based rebels) and had nothing to do with air defense. The CIA did alert the Turks to intercept the aircraft and the White House was helping with the beating of the drums in order to justify Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s build-up on the Syrian border and the unilateral imposition of Bosnia-style buffer zones inside Syria.
Prime Minister Erdogan was very much part of the operation, although the fact that he put his name and credibility on the line for an operation destined to be discredited indicates that both he — and perhaps the U.S. officials — were deliberately misled by intelligence sources regarding the contents of the aircraft. It is even possible that good counter-intelligence by the Russian or Syrian governments fed misinformation to Washington. Nonetheless, on Oct. 11, Mr Erdogan said publicly: “One cannot carry defense industry equipment or arms, munitions… with civilian aircraft. … Unfortunately this rule was violated.” Syria, in response, accused Mr Erdogan of lying, saying the charge “lacks credibility”.
By Oct. 19, the news that the incident had been a major intelligence mistake, and that it may have damaged U.S.-Turkish relations rather than damaged Moscow, still had not been understood by all the regional media, however. Al Arabiya, in a report by Abdullah Buzkurt, on Oct. 19, noted: “Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent harsh criticism of Russia, following the forced landing of a Syrian plane in the Turkish capital and Ankara’s exposure of its non-civilian cargo [it was, in fact, civilian — Ed.] destined for the Syrian defense ministry, must be an unambiguous indication to Moscow that friendly feelings in Ankara towards Russia should not be taken for granted. It appears there has been a serious miscalculation on the part of Russian policymakers that Turkey would keep compartmentalizing Russia and the Syrian crisis in separate baskets forever. They were wrong.”
This, and similar Turkish reporting, has begun to backfire faster than Ankara or Washington could have expected, and equally highlighted the possibility that there were continued impediments to any NATO military intervention to support Turkey in taking offensive action against Syria, or even pushing for the Bosnia-style buffer zones. At the same time, U.S., French, and Israeli intelligence estimates note that there were far fewer anti-Assad guerilla combatants functioning inside Syria than were earlier being estimated, and that they were — despite massive financial and weapons support from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia (and indirectly, the U.S.) — dysfunctional to the point where their activities have been instrumental in building support for the Assad Government, rather than opposition to it.
Assad is by no means ready to depart the scene, and the Iran-Turkey-Syria scenario is moving more in Syria’s (and therefore Iran’s) favor.