Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – a self-styled neo-Ottoman sultan – was only a few years a darling of Western governments and media, proclaimed as a moderniser of Turkey, overseeing a bustling economy and positioning his country as a strategic bridge to Asia.
But Erdogan’s involvement in the US-led regime-change project in Syria is now steadily revealing his family’s appreciable criminal enterprises: from smuggling oil and stolen artefacts, to gun-running for terrorist networks. The former Sultan of Swing is swinging alright, but it could be at the end of an incriminating rope whose noose is becoming ever tighter around his neck.
Russia’s air strikes in support of the Syrian government in its nearly five-year war against foreign-backed mercenary brigades are blowing the lid on the corruption at the heart of the Turkish ruling AK Party, and the Erdogan family business in particular.
One factor in why Erdogan ordered the fatal shoot-down of a Russian Su-24 fighter jet this week was out of revenge for how Russia is destroying the Turkish ruler’s criminal schemes. The destruction of hundreds of oil tankers and other facilities commandeered by the jihadist terror network in eastern Syria and western Iraq is hitting Erdogan’s lucrative racket.
The smuggling routes – estimated to earn $1 million per day for the terror brigades – are integrated by Erdogan’s son, Bilal, whose licensed shipping companies traffic the illicit goods to global markets. Russian intelligence has laid bare this smuggling empire, as presented by President Vladimir Putin at the recent G20 summit held in Turkey’s Antalya. Further incriminating details are expected in coming weeks.
This week, following the downing of the Russian warplane, Erdogan boldly dismissed the oil connections as «slander».
But as Putin retorted, with a touch of sarcasm, it’s hard to imagine how the Ankara authorities could be unaware of an illicit industry involving thousands of oil-laden trucks criss-crossing the heavily militarised Turk border.
Among the contraband are believed to be precious artefacts stolen from Syria’s ancient dwellings, such as the cities of Palmyra and Iraq’s Nimrod, according to the Syrian information minister, Omran al-Zoubi. These artefacts dating from 2,000 years ago are designated as world heritage valuables by the United Nations. It says something about the dubious values of Erdogan and his AK Party cronies when world heritage objects are being looted to finance personal gain and terrorism.
The trade in oil stolen from Syrian and Iraqi state-owned facilities by the jihadists is only one half of a giant cross-border loop tied up by Turkey.
Convoys of trucks laden with weapons are going back into Syria from Turkey on an almost daily basis. Those weapons, paid for by proceeds from the oil smuggling, are then distributed among the plethora of jihadist terror groups, including the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra and so-called Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh). The arms trade is overseen by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), headed up by Hakan Fidan, who is closely associated with Erdogan and the AKP leadership.
Fidan was quoted by the state-run Anadolu news agency last month as offering an apologia for the IS terror group. «ISIS is a reality and we have to accept that we cannot eradicate a well-organised and popular establishment such as the Islamic State», said Fidan, who added: «Therefore I urge my Western colleagues to revise their mindset about Islamic political currents… and thwart Vladimir Putin’s plans to crush Syrian Islamist revolutionaries [terrorists]». The statement caused such a controversy that the Anadolu news agency later issued a denial of its prior publication.
Despite a heavy media crackdown under Erdogan, sections of the Turkish media have courageously carried damning reports on the oil-weapons nexus that is fuelling the war in Syria. This week, the editor of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, Can Dundar, was arrested on charges of «spying» and crimes against the state because he published articles with photographic evidence exposing the massive cross-border weapons dealing, overseen by Turk I ntelligence. Erdogan has threatened the editor with a life sentence for daring to reveal «state secrets».
Another Turk newspaper, Today’s Zaman, also this week reported on an unintended slip made by Adana state prosecutor, Ali Dogan, a protégé of Erdogan. The prosecutor inadvertently revealed in a statement that up to 2,000 trucks filled with arms and operated by Turk intelligence have been ferrying firepower to militants in Syria.
It thus makes the claims made by the Syrian minister al-Zoubi that the downing of the Russian Su-24 this week – resulting in the death of its pilot – was an act of revenge by Erdogan owing to the severe damage that Russia’s military intervention in Syria is inflicting. That damage includes not only huge financial losses to Erdogan and his family entourage, but also to the entire war effort for regime change against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In an interview with Russian media, the Syrian minister said: «All of the oil was delivered to a company that belongs to the son of Recep [Tayyip] Erdogan. This is why Turkey became anxious when Russia began delivering airstrikes against the IS [Islamic State] infrastructure and destroyed more than 500 trucks with oil already. This really got on Erdogan and his company’s nerves. They’re importing not only oil, but wheat and historic artefacts as well», added al-Zoubi.
If Erdogan thought he could poke the Russian bear in the eye and get away with it, he is sorely mistaken. Russia has stepped up its bombing campaign along the Syria-Turkey border, hitting oil trucks heading north and the reverse-flow of arms trucks heading south. In the Syrian border town of Azaz, a Russian air strike this week reportedly destroyed up to 20 vehicles believed to be stocked with weapons. Seven people were killed in the air raid.
Ankara claims that the convoys crossing the border are carrying «humanitarian aid» to Turkmen Syrians. Turk Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has complained that Russian air strikes have been targeting Turkmen «brothers and sisters» – inferring civilians.
But these are the same Turkmen militia who gained notoriety this week by brutally murdering the Russian pilot who parachuted from the Su-24 downed by Turk F-16s jets.
The Turkmen militia, with names like the 10th Brigade of the Coast, are fighting hand-in-hand alongside the other jihadist terror groups, Al Nusra and IS, to topple the government in Damascus. The Turkmen, who reside in northern Syria but who are ethnically related to Turkish people, have played an instrumental role in waging Erdogan’s covert war of terror in Syria.
Last year, in April 2014, Turkmen militia carried out a massacre in the northern coastal village of Kessab, in Latakia Province, where 88 Armenian Christians were slaughtered. Thirteen of the victims were beheaded, according to survivors. That attack also involved brigades from al Nusra, IS and the so-called Free Syrian Army, the alleged «moderate secular rebels» much championed by the Western governments and media. (A follow-up column will be published on that specific massacre in the coming days.)
Significantly, a Turkmen commander recently protested bitterly to the Erdogan regime over it not suppling his fighters with enough weapons.
Turkmen commander Ömer Abdullah of the Sultan Abdülhamit Brigade was quoted as saying: «We are trying to survive under unbearable brutality and we need Turkey’s help.» He was referring to Russian air strikes, adding: «Every day our Turkmen brothers are dying. We expect the [Erdogan] government to support us. Why have they abandoned us? Our martyrs fall every day. Why are we being left alone? I don’t understand».
As Turkey’s Today’s Zaman points out, the Turkmen’s claim of not receiving sufficient weapons raises the bigger question about the arms trucks that Turk intelligence, MIT, has been running into Syria. Where have the machine-guns, artillery and mortars contained in thousands of cross-border convoys gone to? If the Turkmen brigades are being cut out of the supply chain then that suggests that Ankara’s weapons are being funnelled instead to the other jihadist groups, such as Al Nusra and IS.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria is turning the tide decisively against the criminal US-led war for regime change, by decimating the ranks for terror brigades that Washington and its allies have deployed for that objective.
For Turkey’s self-styled strongman Erdogan, Russia’s intervention is also hammering home huge personal losses. His egotistical schemes of resurrecting Turkey as a new Ottoman regional power are being shattered. The international reputation of the country under his leadership is sinking into a putrid sewer.
Moreover, his family’s criminal involvement in the conflict is also being exposed. And his responsibility for fuelling a criminal war of aggression with the loss of over 250,000 lives looms ahead of Erdogan like a noose. The Sultan of Swing indeed.