Report: Obama confronted Erdoğan over support for radicals in Syria

11 October 2013 /TODAY’S ZAMAN, İSTANBUL – US President Barack Obama reportedly confronted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a “difficult meeting” in May about what Washington saw as indiscriminate support for fighters seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a sign of disagreement between the two NATO allies over how to respond to the crisis in Syria.

Erdoğan met with Obama during a visit to Washington in May, and the two had talks focusing primarily on Syria. The two leaders projected a united front after the talks despite disagreement over how much the US should intervene to end the Syrian crisis. Turkey has pressed the US for a more aggressive stance to bring down the Assad regime while the Obama administration, partly out of concern over radical Islamist groups within the opposition, has refrained from military action or more active support for the opposition. Behind closed doors, Obama complained about Turkish dealings with the Syrian opposition, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. According to the report, Obama delivered “what US officials describe as an unusually blunt message: The US believed Turkey was letting arms and fighters flow into Syria indiscriminately and sometimes to the wrong rebels, including anti-Western jihadists.”

At the White House meeting, the Turkish side pushed back at the suggestion that they were aiding radicals and sought to enlist the US to aggressively arm the opposition, the report said, citing US officials briefed on the discussions.

Turkey and the US have both said Assad must go, but they differ significantly in their approach to the threat stemming from radical groups fighting against the regime, including those affiliated with al-Qaeda. According to the Wall Street Journal, Ankara believes the threat posed by such groups could be dealt with later. A US decision in December to designate one of al-Qaeda-linked groups, the al-Nusra Front, as a terrorist group was “in part to send a message to Ankara about the need to more tightly control the arms flow.” The report said the Turkish government has recalibrated its stance in recent months, reducing its efforts to arm anti-Assad groups as groups linked with al-Qaeda expanded their influence in northern towns near the border with Turkey. But this was out of concern over possible threats from radical groups to Turkey’s security, not because of US complaints, it added. The report said Turkey’s Syria policy that put Ankara at odds with the US was carried out by Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish Intelligence Organization (MİT), calling him “a driving force behind [Turkey’s] efforts to supply the rebels and topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, Fidan directed a secret effort to bolster opposition groups’ capabilities by allowing arms, including those coming from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, money and logistical support to funnel into northern Syria, where radical groups are active.The decision to provide aid to Syrian rebels through MİT was made in early 2012 and it ensured “Erdoğan’s office had control over the effort and that it would be relatively invisible,” the report said.

“Syrian opposition leaders, American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats who worked with Mr. Fidan say the MİT acted like a ‘traffic cop’ that arranged weapons drops and let convoys through checkpoints along Turkey’s 565-mile border with Syria,” the report said. It also cited some moderate Syrian opposition leaders saying that the arms shipment bypassed them and went directly to groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Highlighting the US-Turkish mistrust, the report also said the CIA “spies on Turkey and the MİT runs an aggressive counterintelligence campaign against the CIA.” Fidan has also caused US and Israeli unease because he passed “several pieces of intelligence to Iran, including classified US assessments about the Iranian government” when Turkey was enjoying close ties with Iran three years ago.