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Military arrests show further drive by AKP to punish Gulenists

The arrests of 10 Turkish gendarmes for investigating trucks sent by Turkey’s intelligence agency into Syria is another sign of the ongoing drive against the Gulen movement by Turkey’s government

It was by any standards an utterly humiliating moment for a senior agency of a government anywhere.

On 19 January, a column of trucks travelling through Turkey’s southern province of Adana was stopped by the gendarmerie and soldiers and forced to reveal the cargo they were carrying. Personnel on the bus, all apparently belonging to Turkey’s Secret Service, MIT, were forced to get out and were handcuffed. Then news was broken to the Turkish media, accusing the government of sending arms to hardline rebels in Syria.

Nor was this the first time trucks had been stopped. In fact there seems to have been a stream of events of this sort. Zaman, the newspaper of the Gulen movement, a modernist Sufi brotherhood whose leader lives in exile in the USA, reported that a consignment of munitions on its way to Syria had been captured in trucks in Adana on 7 November 2013. It was not an isolated event.

On 1 January 2014, Ozcan Sisman, a local prosecutor was reported to have been overruled by the local governor when he tried to have other trucks searched at Kirikhan. They were on their way to the Oncupınar border crossing into a part of Syria which was even at this early date believed to be under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Sisman was forced to resign. The government again said that the trucks were engaged in humanitarian work and should not be interfered with. They were said to be travelling to help Turkmen communities in Syria. But some Turkmen spokesmen later cast doubt on this.

Retribution has followed. Last week the Turkish authorities announced that 10 more officers and soldiers involved in the 19 January 2014 truck search have been arrested and charged and will face trial. These arrests come on top of 47 earlier ones in this case and suggest that a mass trial is being planned. Pro-government news sources such as the Anatolia newsagency and Yeni Safak link the arrests to the drive to eliminate the Gulen movement and punish its supporters in government offices.

Until the prosecution indictments are presented in court, one cannot do much more than hazard a guess about the nature of the evidence this may be based on. But hostility between the Gulenists inside the judiciary and MIT has been visible for some years. On 7 February 2012, an attempt was made by prosecutors believed to be linked to the Gulenists to have Hakan Fidan, head of MIT, arrested for his behind-the-scenes talks with Kurdish leaders, talks which ultimate led to the ceasefire with the PKK. From the point of view of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, it was the Gulenists who started the feud.

At the time when trucks were being stopped, that feud had reached a crescendo with attempts to arrest leading associates of the government, including the sons of four minister, with corruption charges. The arrests were reversed. The prosecutions dropped. On 12 May this year, the final stage came when the leading prosecutors behind the corruptions arrests of December 2013 were stripped of their professional qualification by Turkey’s supreme judicial body, the High Council of Prosecutors and Judges (HSYK).

The government evidently views the truck probes in 2013-4 as part of the failed attempt by the Gülenists to unseat it. And it is giving no quarter. A month ago, the threat from the Gulenists was included in the official secret document of strategic dangers to the country.

By themselves a Sufi movement might not seem to present an obvious strategic danger to Turkey as opposed, perhaps, to a political challenge. However the government has recently expanded its accusations against the Gulenists to suggest that a pact of some form is emerging between the movement’s leader, Fethullah Gulen, and Iran. That the authorities are making a charge of this sort is surprising: Iran and Turkey have normally maintained fairly good working relations, and a recent official visit to Tehran by President Erdoğan passed off uneventfully, despite tough remarks he made before setting off. As for Mr Gulen, he has not shown much sign of tenderness towards Iran in the past. So far as can be discerned, his international views tend to be broadly in line with those of the United States.

However, the allegation now is that the ten arrested soldiers belong to an Islamist pro-Iranian organisation called in Turkish Selam Tevhid (Hail Unity/Tawhid) or the "Jerusalem Army". This shadowy body is said to be an offshoot of Hezbollah and to have been responsible for the assassination of leading Turkish secularists such as the journalist Uğur Mumcu in the 1990s. Again, it is almost as surprising to find alleged supporters of Hezbollah among the still generally secularist Turkish military as it is to think of Mr Gülen in cahoots with Tehran. Time will show how strong the evidence is.

Some may see poetic justice in these accusations. The Gulenists formerly inside the judiciary are blamed for launching the massive but shaky conspiracy trials of Ergenekon and Balyoz [Sledgehammer] under which hundreds of senior military figures were jailed for years on what is now generally regarded as trumped up evidence. However in the Adana truck search case, the men being arrested appear to be mostly very junior figures who were obeying orders from their superiors. They are now being reported in the media as members of Selam Tevhid.

Moreover, the arrests have renewed unwelcome publicity for the fact that something was crossing from Turkey into Syria under official auspices and perhaps still is. The border is extremely porous. Turkey’s attitude towards IS was obscure in early 2014. It is now firmly unfriendly. On 22 April, for example, President Erdogan denounced IS as "an important virus which is trying to break up the Umma [worldwide Islamic community]". Yasin Aktay, a deputy chairman of the AKP, says that any aid in trucks going into Syria is not for IS but the Free Syrian Army.

Prosecutions such as that of the 10 gendarmerie soldiers are probably set to continue, a reminder that high as Syria is on the Turkish authorities’ list of priorities, the fight against internal supporters of the Gülen comes even higher.

- David Barchard has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant, and university teacher. He writes regularly on Turkish society, politics, and history, and is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye

David Barchard has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant, and university teacher. He writes regularly on Turkish society, politics, and history, and is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye

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Photo credit: Turkish soldiers keep watch from an observation tower in the Nusaybin district on the border with Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli (AFP)

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