Turkey sees 'terrorists' everywhere, except for its own proxies

A network of Ankara-backed paramilitaries is proliferating

Armed female fighter of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) are seen on the defense line around Kobane on 26 December 2014. (Photo by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto) (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton waded into troubled US-Turkey relations when she and her daughter Chelsea announced last week that they had acquired the rights to produce a television series based on a forthcoming book about Syrian Kurdish women fighters.

Written by bestselling American journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, The Daughters of Kobani is to be released on February 16 and will recount the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units' (YPG) 2014 defence of the border city of Kobani from an ISIS assault and early days as the main local fighting force in the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS.

Turkey views the YPG as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has led an armed insurgency in the country’s south-east for decades and is labelled a terrorist group by the US and EU. Ankara's state-run news agency expressed fears that the Clintons’ series would “whitewash” terrorists as freedom fighters.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan chairs a security meeting in Ankara, Turkey January 23, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan chairs a security meeting in Ankara on January 23, 2018, that was attended by Adnan Tanriverdi, second from right. Kayhan Ozer / Presidential Palace via Reuters

That's rich coming from a government that is widely thought to have enabled ISIS' rise and which has in recent years developed a vast network of problematic proxies doing its bidding from Turkey to western Europe, from the Caucasus to the Middle East and beyond.

As detailed in a new report from the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and Trends Research and Advisory in Abu Dhabi, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to fill the regional vacuum and remake Turkey as a dominant force with the help of a variety of militant groups, defence contractors and rogue actors.

“Erdogan now has a private military and paramilitary system at his disposal. He deploys this apparatus for domestic and foreign operations without official oversight,” write co-authors Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak and Jonathan Spyer. They add that these groups “serve an Islamist, neo-Ottoman [and once again, anti-Kurdish] agenda".

Turkey's most prominent use of proxies has been in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars and in the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. In all three cases Ankara hired thousands of anti-Assad regime rebels to fight for its cause, many linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or other radical Islamists. In north-eastern Syria, Turkey-backed fighters have been accused of ethnic cleansing and war crimes, such as roadside executions.

Another key element in Mr Erdogan's empire is Turkish defence contractor Sadat, which was founded in 2012 by Islamist former brigadier general Adnan Tanriverdi and provides military training for special police units, Mr Erdogan's presidential guards and Turkey's recently created neighbourhood watchmen. Israel has accused Sadat of transferring millions of dollars in funding for Hamas, labelled a terrorist group by the US and EU.

Shadi Ghanim's take on the influx of foreign fighters in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Shadi Ghanim's take on the influx of foreign fighters in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Grey Wolves' main task is to counter perceived threats to the state

With Mr Tanriverdi's late 2019 departure as presidential adviser, Sadat is now unaffiliated with the state, providing deniability. According to Yanarocak and Spyer, Sadat helped recruit and deploy Syrian fighters in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, and has ties with Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, as do Turkey's intelligence agency and its main relief organisation, IHH. In a late 2015 interview, Mr Tanriverdi provided the rough outlines for Turkey's 2016 and 2019 military operations in Syria's north-east, revealing his likely involvement in top-level military matters.

The report overlooks at least two of Mr Erdogan's tools of power projection: the army of Turkish imams across Europe who keep an eye out for dissidents and promote an Islamic nationalist message to the five-million-strong Turkish diaspora and other Muslim groups; and the powerful Turkish drones that have played a crucial role in projecting Turkish power and backing Ankara's agenda in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, northern Iraq and even the eastern Mediterranean.

Tracing the origins of Turkey's embrace of deniable, non-state actors to the "deep state" concept that took root in the turbulent 1960s and 70s, the JISS-Trends report does however highlight the Grey Wolves, founded in 1965 as the youth wing of the far-right National Movement Party (MHP). Its ideology is a Turkish-Islamic worldview that sees the Republic as sacred, and its main task is to counter perceived threats to the state, primarily communist elements and leftist Kurdish separatists.

People gestures the "Grey Wolves" salutation and wave flafs during an election rally of Turkey's opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP) May 24, 2015 in Ankara, ahead of the June 7 general elections. AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN (Photo by ADEM ALTAN / AFP)
The 'Grey Wolves' during an election rally of Turkey's Nationalist Action Party in Ankara in 2015. AFP

After the 1980 coup, some Grey Wolves were incorporated into a deep state special operations unit, given broader military training and assigned to covert missions against Armenian militants in Europe and Kurdish activists within Turkey. Grey Wolf Mehmet Ali Agca murdered well-known Turkish journalist and activist Abdi Ipekci in 1979 and two years later tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II.

In 1997, Turkey’s National Security Council labelled the Grey Wolves a potential threat to national security. Yet rather than outlaw the group, Turkey continued to quietly use them, mostly abroad. Grey Wolves fought with the Muslim Chechens against Russia until 2000, then just over a decade later they fought with Syrian Turkmen, in line with Turkey’s efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

"Recruitment was public via the Turkish propaganda machine at home, especially via pro-government newspapers such as Yeni Safak and Star," write Yanarocak and Spyer, adding that it was a Grey Wolf who killed the Russian pilot shot down by a Turkish F-16 in November 2015. "Ankara's open support for the Grey Wolves means that the organisation is evolving from a marginal, radical, rightist group into one embraced by the Turkish state."

That alignment has grown in recent years due to the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) parliamentary alliance with the MHP. This can be seen in the increasingly brazen acts of Grey Wolves members in Europe.

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which include YPG and YPJ units, battled ISIS with great success in Syria's north-east. AFP
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which include YPG and YPJ units, battled ISIS with great success in Syria's north-east. AFP
The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage and Justice. Courtesy Penguin Press
'The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage and Justice'. Courtesy Penguin Press
Turkey's partners surely seem less appetising than America's

Last June, Grey Wolves attacked the Vienna rally of a Kurdish organisation looking to raise awareness about violence against women in Turkey. The next month a group of Grey Wolves interrupted an Armenian rally in eastern France and their leader declared: “Let the Turkish government give me 2,000 euros and a weapon, and I will do what needs to be done, wherever in France.” A few months later, during the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, Grey Wolves vandalised the Armenian genocide monument in Lyon.

That last assault prompted France to ban the group, and German lawmakers were soon calling for a similar ban, which could spur Austria to do the same. An estimated 11,000 Grey Wolves live in Germany, and prominent Turkish dissidents in exile there, such as journalist Can Dundar, have expressed fears that the Turkish government may use them for assassinations.

Turkey's partners surely seem less appetising than America's. For helping defeat ISIS, the women guerrillas of YPJ have been hailed as heroes on the cover of Time magazine, Marie Claire and Der Spiegel. Lemmon's book reportedly sparked a bidding war for the television rights, won by the deep pockets of the Clintons' HiddenLight Productions.

I can’t imagine a Netflix series on the Grey Wolves or rebel Syrian extremists generating the same sort of buzz. But that doesn’t mean the world should not be paying close attention to Turkey’s problematic proxies..

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National