Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s powerful intelligence service MIT, resigned on February 7, just three days before the deadline for him to file to run in the June 7 national parliamentary elections. Known as a trusted ally and clandestine business partner of President Recep Erdogan, Fidan’s move has provoked widespread speculation about splits in the ruling AKP party and larger regional realignments.
Sources in both Ankara and Washington cautioned against any hasty conclusions about the sudden Fidan resignation, but concede certain crucial facts about the developments, including reports of Fidan’s links to Islamic State and Al Nusra.
Inside Turkey, a major restructuring of government is underway, with President Erdogan seeking to transform the country into a strong presidential system, if AKP wins a solid enough majority in the June 7 elections to engineer a constitutional change. Already, since taking over as president last year, Erdogan has built up an executive bureaucracy that rivals the prime minister in both size and authority.
Fidan’s name has been floated since his February 7 resignation for two possible future posts—if he wins a parliamentary seat. First, he could replace Ahmet Davutoglu as Prime Minister, forging an even stronger bond between himself and Erdogan. Turkey is also going through a major intelligence reorganization, with plans to create a new super Ministry of National Security, with oversight over MIT, the Turkish military and cyber security service. Fidan would be an obvious candidate to take that post, given that he has been the architect of the restructuring and build-up of Turkey’s extensive intelligence apparatus.
Veli Agbaba, the deputy chair of the opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) warned recently that “Turkey has been a police state. Now it is turning into an intelligence state.”
Since taking charge of the MIT in 2010, Fidan has built up massive dossiers on both political enemies and allies alike. This includes his business partner and patron, President Erdogan.
Some of Fidan’s critics have accused him of being an Iranian agent, citing his clandestine business ties to Reza Zarrab and Babak Zanjani. Zarrab, an Azeri-Turkish dual citizen, was the go-between for Fidan and Zanjani in a lucrative oil smuggling operation that bypassed sanctions against Iran, through a global network of front companies stretching from Dubai, through Turkey, to Malaysia.
But Fidan has come under far more serious criticism for his business dealings with Syrian rebel factions, including both the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. On January 2, 2014, a caravan of MIT-registered trucks were stopped by Turkish gendarmerie near the Syrian border, leading to public exposes of business dealings between AKP and Islamic State forces. Since that time, further evidence has surfaced of oil smuggling between IS-held territories and Turkey, estimated as millions of dollars a day.
This, in turn, has led to a further rift between the United States and Turkey over the war on the Islamic State. Some American specialists believe that Fidan’s resignation is part of an effort to reduce the Washington-Ankara tensions. Last week, the US and Turkey signed an agreement that the Pentagon will soon begin training vetted Syrian rebel fighters at bases in Turkey.
Ambassador Robert Ford, who resigned last year as US Ambassador to Turkey and special envoy to Syrian rebels, came out recently calling for a halt to all aid to Syrian rebels, arguing that they have been largely taken over by the Al Nusra Front and can no longer be trusted. He called for a serious consideration of foreign “boots on the ground,” warning that only a professional military force can deal with both IS and the Assad government. He cautioned, however, that this does not necessarily mean “American boots on the ground.”