Fallout from Syrian colonel’s abduction

The smokescreen surrounding the abduction of Syrian Col. Hussein Harmush, who defected to Turkey in June 2011 before being handed over to the Syrian secret service in September 2011, has begun to clear in recent weeks following a judicial probe. Claims that Turkey’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), was involved in handing Harmush over to Syria were finally confirmed on Feb. 2 when the Adana Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office issued a written statement saying one MİT agent had been arrested for questioning and further MİT officials had been called to testify as “suspects” in the scandalous repatriation case.

Two days later, the prosecutor formally charged the five individuals — one of whom is an MİT agent identified only by the initials Ö.S. — for committing crimes including political espionage and deprivation of liberty. The prosecutor’s request for the detention of the suspects pending trial was later approved by the court ruling. The investigation is still ongoing and it may well implicate senior management at the MİT in what some describe as a major cover-up, putting the secretive intelligence agency in a difficult position.

The agency was dealt a heavy blow last week when senior MİT officials were called to testify at another criminal case investigation in İstanbul, creating a huge political controversy in Turkey. The government had to push for an emergency legislative change in an effort to limit the fallout from the crisis and put a lid on the political firestorm. For now, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has managed to save his men, especially Hakan Fidan, his close confidant at the top of the agency, because the new amendment means Erdoğan’s approval is required before any legal probe into the MİT is launched. In other words, the independent judicial review of the secret service in Turkey was effectively halted, as prosecutors now need a green light from Erdoğan, who will in all likelihood refuse to grant permission for investigation.

Will that be end of the story? I hardly think so. The judicial review may be over but public scrutiny of the MİT will continue in printed, visual and social media. Nowadays, nothing remains confidential forever, especially in the Internet age. There is a gag order on the Harmush case, but it had already been leaked to the Turkish press that MİT had tried to cover up the mess surrounding his abduction case since the beginning. When Gofran Hicazi, Harmush’s wife, petitioned the sub-governor in Altınözü — where the refugee camp was located not far from the Syrian border — to reveal the fate of her husband, the involvement of intelligence operatives was exposed. When the initial probe saw security footage that showed Harmush hopping into an MİT-registered car with an agent, the sub-governor called the MİT regional office asking about the whereabouts of the colonel. The police tapped the line of suspects and traced a call made by MİT’s Hatay district manager, identified by the initials M.A.A, to the suspect Ö.S., during which the district manager informed Ö.S. about the security footage, which was recorded on Aug. 28, or Aug. 29 according to Harmush’s wife. It was also alleged that the spy agency’s Adana district chief, N.B., was also involved in the case.

The story became murkier last week when it was revealed that MİT head Hakan Fidan made a trip to Hatay on Dec. 3-4, 2011 to talk to Hatay governor Celalettin Lekesiz about the case. To avoid any embarrassment, the MİT probably prepared a story for willing journalists, saying that Fidan’s trip was to alert the governor about the activity of French and Israeli spies along the Syrian border — as if he had to make a personal appearance to convey that message to the governor. Rumor has it that Fidan convinced the governor to support the cover-up at that meeting and the agency let Ö.S. continue working with defectors in refugee camps. Here comes the twist, however. When the prosecutor was close to identifying MİT agents in the handover scandal and was making preparations to indict them, the MİT headquarters fired Ö.S., on Feb. 1. Five months later he was identified as the man who abducted the Syrian colonel. While Ö.S., who had served at the agency for 19 years, was made the fall guy, the MİT sheltered two senior MIT officers, both of whom the prosecutor wanted to question and possibly issue an arrest warrant for. The Turkish daily Radikal reported that these two agents went into hiding at the MİT headquarters in Ankara, where they waited for the new legislative changes to take force which would grant them immunity from prosecution.

We also do not know to what extent the Turkish foreign ministry was involved in this scandalous cover-up and whether it was duped by the MİT in the first place or deliberately misled the nation. But the ministry denied claims about the handover of the Syrian colonel in a written statement issued on Sept. 15, 2011, two weeks after his abduction. Next day, the Guardian ran a story claiming that Turkey traded Harmush for nine wanted Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists, based on information provided by Wissam Tariff from the human rights organization Avaaz. It is not clear whether the Turkish foreign ministry was trying to put the information out there to preempt publication of the Guardian story or if it was just responding to increased chatter about the whereabouts of the Syrian colonel, which led to an unanswered question posed to the Turkish prime minister during his visit to Egypt on Sept. 12-13, 2011.

A day after the Guardian story, on Sept. 17, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu held a press conference at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) provincial headquarters in his home constituency of Konya. He used the occasion to strongly deny claims that the Turkish government handed over the Syrian colonel as part of a deal, saying that “this [the Guardian story] is a manipulative news story.” He underlined that the Turkish state traditionally never traded the lives of refugees who sought shelter in Turkey, no matter what the price was. But the rumors never stopped. On Nov. 26, foreign ministry spokesman Selçuk Ünal had to issue another denial, this time of a news story published on the Syriatruth.org website which claimed that Turkey traded the Syrian colonel for three MİT agents who had been caught by Syrian intelligence. There are too many questions that remain unanswered here. For example, when Davutoğlu rushed to become the first cabinet minister to defend Fidan — a family friend and close associate — in a televised interview after Fidan was called in to testify by prosecutors in İstanbul as a suspect in another criminal case, did Davutoğlu know that the agency was involved in the cover-up of Harmush’s abduction?

What we know, however, is that this was a major blow to the opposition movement in Syria, as the Bashar al-Assad regime skillfully exploited Harmush’s forced confession, broadcasting footage of him admitting his crimes against the government to discourage further defections. He was the first senior Syrian army officer who defected, along with other members of an army unit responsible for a crackdown in the town of Jisr al-Shighour. During his exile, Harmush founded the Brigade of Free Officers, a group of army deserters that later became part of the Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition group headed by another defector, the Syrian Col. Riyadh al-Asaad.

In their attempt to control the damage, which included sweeping the dirt under the carpet and letting the wrongdoers go with impunity, some in the Turkish government may have thought they were indeed protecting Turkey’s national security and interests. This twisted rationale violates the principles of accountability and transparency and will eventually lead to Turkey’s government losing credibility, the most important asset a democratic government can have. The prosecutor’s move to seek the arrest of the MİT officers has restored this credibility to some extent. Let’s lend an ear to the wife of Harmush: “I do not want to put the blame on the Turkish government. If the government had a hand in this, they would not have arrested this man [Ö.S.].” Living in a makeshift tent in a refugee camp with her four surviving sons, she asks of the Turkish prime minister only one thing: “The safe return of her husband.” Though there are reports that Harmush was executed on Jan. 30, she believes he was sent to Iran as a bargaining chip.

I hope when the prosecutor knocks on Erdoğan’s door for permission to go after the real culprits in the spy agency, the prime minister will find the courage in his heart to say “yes.”

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