Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization is known by the initials for its Turkish name: MIT. It has focused for decades on internal security, but its recently appointed director, 42-year-old Hakan Fidan, intends to change that. A University of Maryland graduate, Fidan had multiple NATO assignments during his military career and wrote a doctoral thesis comparing Turkey’s foreign intelligence with America’s and Britain’s. He’s a long-time intimate of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the architect of Erdogan’s regional outreach policy.
In many ways, Fidan is an emblem of Turkey’s foot in the West. But peel back the veneer a little, and he also symbolizes Turkey’s unique position straddling East and West. Before assuming his post at MIT in June, Fidan was deeply involved in Turkey’s efforts to broker agreements on Iran’s nuclear program. Observers describe him variously as having “close knowledge” of Iran and being an admirer and supporter of the Islamic Republic. Government sources in Israel are reportedly concerned that he has been instrumental in souring ties between Ankara and Jerusalem and that he may have been a key government player behind the Turkish-sponsored May flotilla. Meanwhile, Turkey’s military — long the guardian of “Kemalist” secularism at the pinnacle of national power — views him with misgiving as an Islamist, like Erdogan, whose control of domestic intelligence will consolidate the ruling AKP’s growing hold on the courts, media, and civil communications. Comparisons of Fidan with the intelligence-service henchmen of 20th-century totalitarians can’t help but arise.
Given these trends, Michael Rubin wonders at NRO if it’s a good idea to put a new missile-defense radar in Turkey and sell the Turks the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But there appears to be a more immediate vulnerability opening up, with this weekend’s news that Turkey and Iran will be sharing “real-time intelligence” on Kurdish separatists. In the intelligence world, this is a major advance in information sharing. It implies a daily routine: a means of constant communication involving low- or mid-level functionaries. The routine is certain to be administered, moreover, through closer ties between the two intelligence services: regular meetings, exchanges of personnel, ministerial-level interest in the product at both ends of the exchange pipeline.
Western intelligence professionals should recognize opportunity here along with danger. It might not be a bad thing to have a NATO ally in privileged contact with Iran’s intelligence service. But making use of such a connection requires a clear-headed, unsentimental approach, one that must start with the premise that Turkey’s loyalties are already divided.
It should be obvious at this point that they are; or, more accurately, that Erdogan’s loyalty is to a vision of a resurgent Turkey that wields an increasing influence in both the East and the West. But it shouldn’t surprise us that Erdogan’s Turkey is out for itself. There is nothing to be gained from addressing Turkey in a fatuous manner, as Obama and the U.K.’s David Cameron both have, but neither would it be wise to repudiate Turkey for its emerging connections to the East. The U.S. and our European allies should continue to be more interesting and rewarding partners than Russia or Iran; we should encourage liberalism and the modern legacy of secular government in Turkey; and we should firmly separate the issues of Israel and the Palestinian Arabs from our relations with Turkey and resist any efforts by the Erdogan government to meld them together.
Meanwhile, for each of our regional security arrangements in which Turkey has a featured role (e.g., the missile-defense radar), we should have a backup plan.