Friend or Foe? Turkey’s relationship with the U.S.

Ceylan Ozbudak

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After Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan and the Iranian intelligence crisis came to light, both Israeli intelligence and President Obama wanted to close the subject quickly. However, I believe it is important to clarify why the many voices raised up to that point were fundamentally wrong. Although the logic of the claims surrounding this issue is dubious at best, I am still going to address it, as it has now become a widely discussed topic that is poorly understood.

Turkey’s regional intelligence network is very widespread, even though it is much different from the digital intelligence system of the U.S.A. The primary difference is between human intelligence (HUMINT) versus signals intelligence (SIGINT). After the Cold War, the U.S. made enormous strides in intelligence gathering and today it can track down people so precisely through digital means it is able to tell the pizza topping choices of a given individual. However, in the Middle East, SIGINT doesn’t work quite as well; people rarely exchange important information over the telephone or through e-mail. This brings us to the famous alliance between U.S.-Turkish and Israeli intelligence services, which came to the surface for many as the U.S. started planning to intervene in Syria. However, when the targets seemed to change almost by the hour, it became clear that although U.S. satellites could see each and every militarily important building, Turkey’s HUMINT input was still very much needed.

Israeli politician Ehud Barack said 25 months ago that sharing intelligence with the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) could be dangerous at times, because there was the risk of Turkey leaking intelligence to Iran. It is true that Turkey is very critical of the Iranian regime and regarding those issues concerning Syria, Turkey follows her principles and moral ground. Iran has to follow the requests with regards to the Shanghai Group pact. Turks and Persians are ancient friends; for this very reason, Turkey will never apply the same sanctions against Iran over the nuclear issue that has been viewed as a threat for a couple of decades. Neither the U.S. nor Israel - or any European country, for that matter - could convince Turkey otherwise on the grounds of alliances. Turkey plays a delicate role as a mediator between three nations - Iran, Israel, and the U.S. Each of these nations share a friendship with Turkey, but two of them share a very hostile relationship with Iran, which only Turkey can mediate. The delicacy of this relationship sometimes calls for difficult adjustments, which may frustrate the players occasionally, but serve the long term interests of all three nations in a stable peace.

The relationship between Turks and Persians

Turks and Persians share a past and will share a future. There are kinship ties, shared ancient trade routes, shared literature to account for. This friendship had not been fatally disrupted by either the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 nor the Iranian Revolution of 1979. There is a Turkish proverb: “An old friend is never a foe.” President Ahmedinajad, a very proud Iranian, spoke Turkish fluently during his visit to Turkey when a problem occurred during the simultaneous interpretation; these peoples are no strangers to each other. Turkey is still the only country that the Iranians can travel to without a visa. In terms of intelligence, Turkey acts as a hub and protects the interests of the U.S., Israel and Iran, but also works to prevent these three parties from hurting each other. The CIA is well aware of this fact and therefore largely tries to perform its anti-Iran efforts on Turkish lands without including Turkish intelligence in the process, but is often caught red-handed.

It is not true that Turkey is shifting on its axis or that it has turned its back on the U.S. because of the Syrian crisis

Ceylan Ozbudak

One operation eerily similar to the incident recounted by Ignatius involved an American intelligence officer from Germany using business cover for a meeting with eight Iranians in Istanbul. The men would return home to obtain information on targets of interest to Washington, then travel to Turkey at various intervals to be debriefed. These meetings went undetected by the Turks for quite some time, but ultimately the American officer made the mistake of trying to go through an airport metal detector with a pen inside his jacket, leading to a request to empty his pockets; this routine search after inadvertently setting off the metal detector produced eight false Iranian passports. He spent three nights in a Turkish prison trying to explain himself.

This will neither be the first nor the last time the U.S. is caught trying to gather intelligence on Turkish soil excluding Turkey. Therefore, it is high time that our American friends understand the power of these long-standing bonds, because this lack of understanding reflects on American commentaries that fail to explain the situation adequately.

MIT chiefs had never been well-known in Turkish history until now. Virtually no one in the public even knew their names, but that changed in 2010 when Hakan Fidan was appointed to the position. He was accused by Israel for being pro-Iranian, then pro-Hezbollah and pro-al-Qaeda by the U.S.. Lebanon, on the other hand, promptly claimed that Mr. Fidan was pro-Mossad. It is obviously and technically quite impossible for a person to be a supporter of Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Mossad simultaneously (given the very nature of these groups conflict each other fundamentally).

Looking to China

Recently, Turkey turned down the offer on the Patriot missiles of American company Raytheon, and instead, chose a Chinese company to purchase its missile systems. This too, was seen as a shift of axis for Turkey. There were some Western analysts who considered this as Turkey’s punishing the U.S. for its reluctance to intervene in Syria. I can’t even begin to describe all the important details that these esteemed analysts are missing in their assessment of the situation. First of all, it should be noted that Turkey had showed its interest in purchasing weapons from the Shanghai Pact on March 23, 2011 after Turkey applied to Shanghai Pact for dialogue. This willingness became a reality, with the parties confirming their consent on April 26, 2013. In other words, Turkey’s friendly approach towards China and the Shanghai Pact started well before the onset of the Syrian civil war. Contrary to popular belief, Turkey is not doing this as retribution to U.S.. She is merely assessing the free market, which is an essential principle for the U.S.. Turkey has been seeking to purchase patriots from Raytheon for years now, however, when the time came, she was able to get only the promise of batteries being placed in Turkey, provided that the control center would be in Germany. However Turkey had already begun to produce its own jetfighters, combat helicopters and most recently its own passenger aircrafts, and doesn’t hide the fact that it no longer wishes to be dependent on other countries economically and diplomatically or technologically, for that matter. The Chinese company, unlike Raytheon, offered the missiles for a more favorable price, and also promised to build the missiles in Turkey together with the Turks, in addition to a transfer of technology. This was undeniably a better offer.

Therefore it is not true that Turkey is shifting on its axis or that it has turned its back on the U.S. because of the Syrian crisis. Turkey has special balances with its old friends in the region, though it still seizes every positive opportunity to further better relations with the U.S.. It should also be noted that the recently announced global fund initiative for combatting terrorism through peaceful means has started as a joint project between the U.S. and Turkey. The fact that Turkey is a NATO member and an ally of the U.S. doesn’t mean that it will agree with everything the U.S. says about the Middle East, especially when it seems the U.S. is trying to save the day with ad-hoc and improvised solutions rather than a balanced, long-term policy. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that Turkey is a sensible and pragmatic country that has and will continue to reject the anti-Western, anti-democratic sentiment that has swept across many Muslim countries. To suggest that Turkey has abandoned the West is, in the final analysis, simply not the case.


Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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