Aaron SteinTurkey’s Syria Policy: Why Seymour Hersh Got it Wrong

On 6 April 2014, Seymour Hersh published “The Red Line and the Rat Line” in the London Review of Books. The piece builds on his previous article, “Whose Sarin?,” which calls into question the White House’s framing of the 21 August 2013 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus neighborhood of Ghouta. The latest article accuses Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan of working with the rebels to stage the 21 August attack to trip President Barack Obama’s “red line,” so as to trigger a US military strike on Bashar al Assad’s forces. Blogger Eliot Higgins has already written a scathing rebuttal of the piece, that you can read here.

Higgins forcefully argues that the volcano rockets used in the 21 August attack is a clear indication of regime culpability. In September 2013, Dr. Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow at RUSI in London, used open source analysis to confirm that the rockets in question are still in service with the Russian Navy and have likely been exported to Syria. Uzi Rubin, the first Director of Israel Missile Defense Organization, argues, “The ‘330 mm’ rockets discovered in Zamalka and Ein Tarma were not improvised, jury rigged devices that could be casually made in any workshop; rather, they were part of a well designed range of weapon systems contrived to fulfill Syrian Army’s operational needs.” And finally, Dan Kaszeta, a former US Army officer and consultant based in London, has estimated that the perpetrator of the attack would have needed an industrial facility to produce the amount of Sarin used.

Hersh, on the other hand, argues that Erdogan commissioned Hakan Fidan, the director of Turkey’s intelligence organization (MIT), to provide the rebels with “the training in producing the sarin [sic] and handling it.” Hersh’s scenario suggests that Fidan oversaw an effort to illegally produce, or perhaps procure, the distinct volcano rockets that were used in the attack. Second, Turkish intelligence helped the rebels produce a ton of Sarin in what, according to Kaszeta, must have been a very large facility on the Turkish border, or inside Syria in rebel held territory. Third, MIT, working with its proxies, was then able to smuggle 12 volcano rockets into regime held territory in Damascus – why regime held territory?

Well, according to Rubin’s analysis, the White House statements about the 21 August attack, and Human Rights Watch, the rockets were launched from inside a regime controlled military base. Hersh disputes the range estimates in “Whose Sarin?,” but the assumptions from which his piece is derived, places him in the minority of experts, rather than with the majority of missile and chemical experts who have studied the event.

The fourth assumption is that MIT also convinced the rebels to follow-up the attack with a sustained artillery bombardment. And finally, MIT was able to fool the US IC, which, according to the New York Times, relied on “human, signals and geospatial intelligence as well as a significant body of open-source reporting” before placing the blame for the 21 August attack on Bashar al Assad. And finally, Hersh asserts that the Turks, which had heretofore been so secretive about this plan, made the silly mistake of celebrating the strike in such a way, so as to tip-off the United States’ previously “in the dark” intelligence community.

While I could go on, the current list of materials supporting the White House’s portrayal of events is robust. Instead, this piece will outline Turkey’s approach to the Syrian conflict to answer: “Would Turkey make the political decision to launch a false flag chemical weapons attack to trip the United States’ red-line?” My intent is to augment the already robust technical literature with political analysis.

Turkey’s Syria Policy

 At the outset of the Syrian crisis, Ankara prioritized diplomacy over military action. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sought to convince Syrian President Bashar al Assad to make top down cosmetic democratic reforms to appease the growing anti-government protest movement. Yet, after repeated trips to Damascus, Turkey gave up on Assad in August 2011. In turn, Turkey adopted a three-pronged policy of conventional deterrence, border defense, and, by August 2011, outright regime change brought about by external intervention via support for proxy groups.

Turkey partnered with Qatar — and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia — to arm the Syrian rebels.[1] The formula was simple. The two would work together to organize the Syrian opposition, while also cooperating closely on the transfer of arms to proxies. Qatar provided the networks and funding. And, Turkey facilitated the transfer of weapons via Ankara Esenboga airport. The weapons were then distributed to proxies via Turkish and Arab middlemen, who operate on the border with impunity. (This operation has been marred with numerous screw-ups that have allowed for journalists to document the movement of weaponry. I will discuss this below.)

Turkey partnered with Qatar because the leadership in both countries were deeply disturbed at the images of human suffering in Syria and have become wedded to a policy removing Bashar al Assad, through a combination of military pressure designed to make Assad realize that he cannot win, and diplomatic initiative to force him to relinquish power.

While Turkey has geopolitical reasons to support certain rebel groups (particularly those who are in opposition to the Kurdish PYD), the Turkish leadership’s desire to prevent more bloodshed is an aspect of Ankara’s Syria policy that most analysts often overlook. Erdogan, for example, often cries when speaking about the subject of Syria during television broadcasts and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s voice noticeably changes when he speaks about the issue in public. The Syria conflict is not simply some horrible manifestation of the “great game in the Levant,” but rather a humanitarian tragedy that resonates deeply with Turkey’s religiously conservative leadership.

Thus, in order to believe Hersh’s recounting of events, one would have to assume that MIT was able to produce Sarin (no easy feat), manufacture/procure Russian origin rockets, modify them to look like the volcano rockets already in use with Assad’s forces, and then smuggle them into Damascus – and, in addition, Prime Minister Erdogan would have had to authorize the attack, and thereby sign off on the killing of hundreds of Syrians.

Erdogan is a rough and tumble dude, but the assertion that the Turkish Prime Minister would agree to such an attack belies any real understanding of Turkey’s Syrian policy. To be sure, Erdogan did support US military intervention, but Ankara has been vocal proponent of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) since the early 1990s. In fact, Davutoglu, in his book Strategic Depth, lamented the fact that Turkey played such a limited role in the NATO air campaign over Bosnia and argued that in future situations, Ankara should, in conjunction with an international coalition, play a larger military role in protecting civilians. Thus, the Syria policy was not a dramatic policy shift, but rather a continuation of a near two decades old approach to international politics. In fact, Ankara’s embrace of the doctrine – particularly in Muslim majority areas – is a potential trouble spot for US-Turkish relations moving forward.

The False Flag Tape: Hersh Misses the Point

 As more evidence of his central assertion, Hersh points to a leaked audiotape of a meeting attended by Hakan Fidan, Ahmet Davutoglu, Undersecretary of Foreign Ministry Feridun Sinirlioglu, and General Yasar Guler. The tape is hard to follow – even for native Turkish speakers – but includes a general discussion on Turkey’s options vis-à-vis a military operation to rescue some 20 Turkish soldiers, who are tasked with guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah – the burial place of the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. The tomb is a small enclave of Turkish territory on the banks of the Euphrates River some 20 miles from the Turkish border town of Kargamis. The tomb has recently come under threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and Turkish leaders have pledged to defend it, should ISIS attack the tomb.

In the leaked recording, Davutoglu and Fidan discuss options to create Casus Belli to attack the site. While Fidan does flippantly raise the possibility of staging a false flag attack to justify an attack, Davutoglu responds with a theoretical discussion about how Turkey would go about notifying the United Nations, the Syrian embassy, and its allies/partners after an attack. Davutoglu appears to agree with keeping “all options the table,” but reiterates that Ankara must take steps to justify such an attack using international law. At this point, Sinirlioglu jumps in to the conversation to argue that the international law issue won’t be a problem because the group they would be targeting is Al Qaeda – and nobody likes al Qaeda, or will condemn Turkey for attacking it. At this point, the conversation devolves into what I believe to be is  a haphazard recounting of the ways in which Ankara used to insert special forces and heavy equipment into Northern Iraq to combat the PKK and a general lamenting at the way in which the political opposition has politicized national security decisions. (If only Turkey could go back to the good old days, where national security issues are simply under the purview of the regime elites is the clear sub-text to the conversation.)

The conversation is a damning portrayal of the relative disorganization of Turkey’s Syria policy and, contrary to Hersh’s contention, portrays a bureaucracy that is out of options, rather than scheming to manipulate the course of the Syrian civil war. In fact, the most revealing part of the tape is Guler’s contention that even if Turkey were to train 1,000 men to fight in Syria, they would first need to ensure that they had 6 months of ammunition, or otherwise risk the fighters returning after 2 months of fighting. At one point, Davutoglu notes that Qatar is desperate to buy more ammo for cash, but are waiting for the “minister’s command.” Most assume that the minister is Erdogan, but no one really knows for certain. The conversation suggests that Turkey has not even stockpiled six-months of ammunition for its preferred proxies and that efforts to do so are marred with bureaucratic delays.

Does this sound like a government actively plotting to force US action with a false flag chemical attack? To be fair, the Ghouta attack took place seven months before the tape was allegedly recorded. However, it seems unlikely that the MIT’s organizational ability in terms of policy making would have deteriorated so radically in such a short space of time.

In actuality, the tape underscores continuity in Turkish security politics – namely that Ankara favors intervention – and may even conduct a very small and isolated raid on its own – but it will take every effort to ensure that its actions are in line with international law and norms. A false flag chemical weapons attack is so out of character with Turkish history, it shifts the burden of proof to the accuser. And, in the case of Hersh, the claims fall far short of passing that test.

The Adana Incident: An Operational Miscue, or a Reflection of Turkey’s CBR Preparedness?

 In May 2013, Turkish police raided safe houses in Istanbul, Mersin, Adana and Hatay. In Adana, the Turkish press initially reported that members of Jabhat al-Nusra were in possession of 2 kg (4.5 pounds) of Sarin. The indictment alleged that the men arrested were in possession of chemical precursors that could be used to make Sarin. The pro-government press subsequently reported that the men were in possession of anti-freeze. To be fair, the incident remains murky, but the facts don’t support Hersh’s insinuation that the men were part of the much larger plot to use chemical weapons to trip the US red line.

Turkey’s chemical, biological, radiological (CBR) units are trained in Adapazari – a city some 2 hours drive away from Istanbul. In every Turkish military unit, there is a trained CBR team. However, the general state of the country’s CBR preparedness is poor. The Turkish military’s equipment is old and outdated, with many of the gas masks and protective suits having long expired. To augment these capabilities, the Turkish General Staff elevated the importance of increasing Ankara’s passive defense in a Defense White Paper written and released in 2000. However, as of September 2013, Turkey’s civilian procurement agency still had not prioritized the acquisition of updated chemical weapons equipment. According to Burak Bekdil:

Analysts say all Turkey has are mostly expired gas masks supplied several years ago by the United States, and even if Turkey acquired new masks, these can protect only some Turkish military units — not civilians — near the Syrian border. They fear any chemical attack from Syria would result in heavy losses.

So, if one assumes that Turkey uses US equipment (an absolute certainty) that has expired, one can then piece together the origins of the Adana incident. According to Kaszeta, “By far the most prolific cheap test method for chemical warfare agents is M8 test paper, 1960s vintage litmus-style paper that changes color.  This is very cheap <$2 a booklet.  Notorious for false positives, including a false color change for ethylene glycol (i.e antifreeze) that looks like a G-series nerve agent (i.e. Sarin/GB).” (See this document for more information about the M8 test paper.)

While the details remain murky, I assume that the gendarmerie was responsible for the raid. The gendarmerie in Turkey is a branch of the armed forces that police rural areas outside of the jurisdiction of the regular police. Thus, if one assumes that the gendarmerie are using outdated equipment like US origin M8 test paper from the 1960s, then one can easily explain why initial tests may have suggested the presence of Sarin.

To be sure, something happened in Adana. However, more recent reports of similar incidents suggest that the city is a transit point for the shipment of conventional weapons to Syrian rebels operating over the border, rather than the operational hub of a chemical weapons production center. In January 2014, for example, the gendarmerie stopped trucks driven by a local NGO (The NGO has reported links to numerous “bad guys” and appear to be a key player in MIT’s gun running funny business) – who were being flanked by MIT driven Audi A-3s (a very conspicuous choice in a place like Adana) – and detected explosives.

The gendarmerie stopped the vehicle and proceeded to arrest the drivers, over the objection of the Audi driving MIT agents. This then prompted the governor of Adana, Huseyin Avni Cos, the provincial police chief, and MIT’s regional director to directly intervene, in order to allow for the trucks to continue in to Syria. Why do we care? Well it points to two general themes that are apparent in the audiotape, but are ignored in Hersh’s story: 1) Turkey’s Syria policy is highly compartmentalized. It is so compartmentalized that even the gendarmerie – who Hersh allege are part of the conspiracy to produce Sarin – are not kept up to date about the comings and goings of weapons bound for Syria; 2) That MIT’s operations are relatively well understood in Turkey and have been thoroughly documented by Turkish and foreign journalists. In turn, this suggests that MIT – which has had its trucks stopped on multiple occasions – succeeded in the very complicated task of producing Sarin, but failed to keep its rather mundane gun running operation under wraps. Frankly, Hersh’s claims make absolutely no sense, when put in the larger context of what is actually happening in Turkey.

The Bottom Line 

Hersh is wrong. In addition to the numerous technical reasons that point to serious analytical flaws, the situation on the ground in Turkey does not support the article’s central arguments. While I heard some very wild conspiracy theories when I lived in Turkey, Hersh’s latest tops them all.

[1] Based on my own research, I’ve been able to piece together this very simple list (open to additions/corrections):

1) Turkey border, Qatari purchased arms with Turkish assistance and transport

2) Turkey border, private Gulf donors working with groups like Ahrar al Sham

3) Turkey border, Saudi money providing safe houses for foreigners wishing to join jihad

4) Turkey border, logistical supplies coming in from a whole host of countries, mostly European union (France)

5) Iraq border, Kuwaiti money and Saudi money in particular funding sectarian division and militias

6) Jordan border, Saudi bought arms, movements of Saudi and US trained rebel forces, cash, logistical supplies

7) Lebanese border, mostly shut but leaky in the top northern part and away from Shia areas in the Beqaa Valley



  1. Dave Chapman (History)

    The propulsion section of the “Volcano” looks like a standard, mass-produced rocket artillery. It appears to be a conversion job: Somebody removes the small warhead, puts on a great big warhead, and adds a tail ring for additional stability.

    There are two, possibly three versions: HE, chemical, and (maybe) FAE.

    While the weapon looks a lot like something which the rebels built in their garage, both sides are making stuff which is not remotely “standard issue”. There are videos of Syrian helicopters dropping barrel bombs, which suggests that they don’t have enough regular munitions.

    I still do not see enough information to come to a conclusion.

  2. Tettodoro (History)

    Nice to have a serious analysis from someone who knows something about the region and country in question. Hersh shows himself extraordinarily ignorant of the situation on the ground in Syria and doubtless Turkey as well.
    The translated recording transcipt is difficult to interpret in places – so very useful to have your reading: Turkey clearly feels that it has security issues at stake in Syria (as previously in Iraq) but no coherent plan to advance them.
    Worth noting that according to Hersh it was the Turkish gendarmerie who provided the expertise in chemical warfare “the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene [what scene?]advice and training – including training in chemical warfare”. I appreciate that the gendarmerie is a paramilitary force but do they really possess a sarin capability?