ANKARA, Turkey (Today’s Zaman)—Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT in Turkish) allegedly transported a group of radical fighters to join the fighting in Tel Abyad in January of 2014 after a journey from Reyhanli in the southern province of Hatay across the Akçakale border gate on passenger buses escorted by MIT agents, the Cumhuriyet daily has reported, the latest in a series of revelation of scandals involving the country’s main intelligence body.
The report is the second in less than a week that reveals the scope of MIT’s involvement in Syria’s four-year-long civil war that has convulsed the country and risks spilling over into neighboring countries.
According to the Cumhuriyet report, MIT officials rented two passenger buses to transport fighters belonging to the radical Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), ammunition and weapons from Reyhanli to Akçakale, a town in the southeastern province of Şanliurfa, before crossing the Syrian border.
The fighters were originally from Atmah camp on the Syrian side of the border, close to Bükülmez village in Reyhanlı. The MIT officials brought fighters from the camp across the Turkish border and placed them on buses destined for Akçakale. The destination of the group was Tel Abyad, a Syrian town in Raqqa province that was the scene of ferocious battles between the ascendant ISIL and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Turkey closed the Akçakale border gate — a border crossing with Syria — on Jan. 6, 2014 because of heavy clashes between two sides in Tel Abyad.
MIT, however, transported ISIS fighters to Tel Abyad on Jan. 9, a factor that was a game-changer over the course of the intra-rebel fighting, leading to fall of the town on Jan. 13.
Control of the town slipped from hands of the moderate and Western-backed FSA to the ISIS militant group, prompting the US to halt its military aid program to moderate groups in the face of ISIS’s takeover of military warehouses in northern Syria following Tel Abyad fighting.
In public, Turkey expressed concerns over the radical group’s presence next door but, in reality, according to the Cumhuriyet daily, which based its report on court records of an investigation into the discovery of weapons on passenger buses, an inquiry that led to discovery of MIT’s involvement in transporting ISIS fighters, Turkey facilitated the militant group’s defeat of the FSA in Tel Abyad.
Last year, local media reported on Jan. 10 that Turkish police had found weapons and ammunition on two passenger buses in the southern province of Adana. Acting on a tip, Adana counterterrorism units launched an operation, intercepting two passenger buses on which they discovered a significant amount of ammunition, bullets and rifles, the IHA news agency reported. The Adana chief public prosecutor ordered the police to conduct a search of the buses.
The investigation later came to a halt after government pressure when prosecutors discovered the transportation of fighters by MIT.
Prosecutor Mustafa Sırlı obtained video footage of the transportation through security cameras in the region, and took down the testimonies of bus drivers who confessed that MIT officials had rented the buses. They told the prosecutor MIT agents had said the passengers were refugees.
The details of the halted investigation, the daily insists, opens another a crack in the narrative of the government that denies shipping arms to any warring side in Syria. Last year Turkish security forces, first in Hatay, then two weeks later in Adana, stopped arms-loaded trucks bound for Syria. When the incident first swept into public spotlight, the government insisted that the trucks were delivering humanitarian aid to Turkmens in Syria.
The publication of a video footage by the same daily, the Cumhuriyet, last week over the discovery by prosecutors and gendarmerie forces of weapons and ammunition, including missiles, artillery pieces, rippled through the country, causing a political storm ahead of elections.
Facing a barrage of criticism from all sides, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government offered contradictory statements, with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu first claiming the weapons were destined for the moderate rebel FSA group, but later stating the destination of the cargo was Syria’s Turkmens.
Jolted by the revelation, opposition parties sharpened their criticism of the government’s handling of the Syrian conflict, questioning its murky relations with warring sides in Syria.
Masum Türker, the leader of the Democratic Left Party (DSP), on Friday claimed the brawl between security forces and MIT agents who were escorting the trucks had erupted because of the agents’ fierce resistance to opening some of the boxes which, Türker claimed, were loaded with cash, US dollars and gold.
Such cargo, he exclaimed, was destined for ISIS militants. The cargo reached its final destination after Adana Governor Hüseyin Avni Coş intervened in the situation that pitted members of Turkey’s security institutions against each other, and relayed the government’s order to let the trucks go.
Pressured by the government, the prosecutor allowed the trucks to continue their journey after conducting the search.
In an effort to provide MIT with a legal shield in the face of possible future intra-institution investigations, the AK Party government enacted a new intelligence law, granting legal immunity to members of MIT and giving new powers to the organization unseen in republican history.
Under the new law, a member of MIT can only face an investigation upon the permission of the prime minister, prompting opposition parties and critics to protest the law, arguing that it ushers a new era in which MIT members could engage in wrongdoing and can get away with it.