Ankara’s Hidden Hand: Turkish Covert Ops Then and Now
To put it mildly, Turkey has been substantially involved in Syria since the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011. After Turkish F-16s recently downed a Su-24 Russian tactical bomber over the region where Turkmen anti-Assad groups are based, Turkish President Erdogan tacitly confirmed Turkey’s covert support for Syrian rebels fighting against Damascus, stating that “anyone who bombs that area attacks our brothers and sisters — Turkmen.” Beyond setting up a serious confrontation with Russia, Turkish covert action has also caused a standoff between Ankara and Washington.
Turkish covert action carries the risk of diplomatic isolation from both its traditional Western allies and neighboring countries. More worryingly, it risks direct military conflict, as we have seen recently with Russia. However, this is not the first time that Turkey has grappled with such issues. Declassified documents in Western archives and the now-open communist-era Bulgarian archives show that Turkey has long conducted covert and clandestine operations in neighboring countries. Many of today’s issues — including migration flows, weapons proliferation, and proxy war — appear in these documents, albeit with a Cold War flavor.
In the 1950s, Bulgaria, Turkey’s northwest neighbor, was a prominent target for Turkish intelligence and an area of great interest to Turkey’s Western friends. Animosity between Turkey and Bulgaria stretched back the better part of a century. Since Bulgaria shook off Ottoman authority in the late 19th century, it was viewed by the Sublime Porte and later Ankara as a serious military threat. After Bulgaria gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, its ethnic Turkish minority began to immigrate to Anatolia. This decrease in the Turkish population climaxed during first and second Balkan Wars between 1912 and 1913 when the Balkan League, led by Bulgaria, waged war against the Ottomans to seize remaining territory in the Balkans. As a result of the wars, hundreds of thousands Turks from Bulgaria migrated to Anatolia.
Ankara’s problems with Bulgaria continued after the country signed the Tripartite Pact in 1941 to join the Axis during the Second War World, a move that brought Nazi troops to Turkey’s doorstep. Yet Bulgaria itself emerged as a major threat to Ankara when it aligned with the Soviet bloc and a communist regime took power in 1947. The poor treatment of its remaining Turkish minority and its military buildup made Bulgaria a major threat in Ankara’s eyes in the early Cold War.
During 1950 and 1951, Bulgaria’s communist government eased exit restrictions for its Turkish minority. As a result, nearly a quarter of a million Turks from Bulgaria moved to Turkey to escape political repression and discrimination. During the same period, NATO decided to involve Turkey and Greece in military planning for the defense of the Mediterranean. Even though the two countries would not become NATO member states until the following year, both hosted significant U.S. military training missions. A February 1951 document held in the NATO archives shows that NATO’s Security Committee, the body responsible for protecting the alliance from subversion, was concerned that communist agents could blend in with the Turkish migrants from Bulgaria:
It is obvious that a number of these persons may be Communist agents and a few have indeed already been detected. Although the Communist party has no legal existence [in Turkey] it cannot be assumed that there are no Communists in the country, though it seems probable that the organisation is not sufficiently effective to permit direct and consistent penetration of Government organisations.
However, as the British Security Service (MI5) informed NATO, the threat of communist penetration from Bulgaria was well met by the Turkish National Security Service (MAH). MI5 noted that “the degree of infiltration to Government offices by Communists or fellow travellers can be described as negligible or possibly even non-existent as this is one thing about which the Turks are eternally vigilant.” Acting as both domestic security service and foreign secret intelligence service, MAH not only prevented communist infiltration, but also successfully recruited human intelligence assets among the immigrants.
After Turkey’s admission to NATO in 1952 as a full member, Turkish G-2 (military intelligence) and MAH synchronized their aims and policies to bring them into line with NATO requirements. In terms of signals intelligence (SIGINT) and other technical capabilities, Ankara had to depend on help provided by NATO. Yet partial dependence on NATO intelligence did not mean an absence of effort from the Turks. Indeed, the Turkish intelligence service pursued its own operations against the Socialist bloc. As Gen. Akçakoca from G-2 informed his NATO counterparts in 1953, the Turkish General Staff were best-informed on Bulgaria, with Romania and the Caucasus next in line.
Records available in Turkey’s military archives indicate that Ankara, as a member of NATO, began to focus its intelligence activities on the Soviet Bloc’s nuclear agenda and uranium production. The records also show that until the mid-1950s, Ankara’s attempts to collection intelligence on the Soviet nuclear program were rather futile. A 1955 Turkish G-2 report on the Soviets’ uranium production suggested that Ankara did not have “any clue about the actual figures of the Soviet uranium production.” However, after the mid-1950s, agents recruited from Turkish immigrants from Bulgaria played a crucial role in revealing those figures to the MAH, leading to very real improvements in Turkish intelligence efforts. For example, the MAH’s intelligence activities targeted Bulgarian uranium production, an operation revealed to researchers through Bulgarian security records now available at the Cold War International History Project. The MAH was able to reveal the logistics of uranium production from Bulgaria’s Buhova uranium mine and its route of shipment to Soviet Russia for further enrichment. This information was passed to NATO.
Another prominent example of MAH’s activities in Bulgaria came in 1960. Turkey and its Western allies were eager to reveal the details of missile systems near the Ludogorie region in northeastern Bulgaria. NATO was aware of the existence of missile systems in the region, but the Bulgarians also built several fake missile ramps to divert attention from real facilities. NATO asked Turkey for help in mapping out the properties and locations of the missile systems.
The earliest Turkish efforts — the capture and interrogation of two Bulgarian agents from the Turkish embassy in Sofia — were not fruitful. After this failure, MAH recruited a group of agents chosen from the quarter-million Turkish immigrants from Bulgaria. These immigrants constituted good covert assets for missions in Bulgaria because they were fluent in Turkish and Bulgarian, knew the country, and had a feasible excuse to be there under the cover of visiting their families.
After the MAH smuggled these assets into Bulgaria, they were able to detect the exact location of the missile ramps. They returned to Turkey with their findings, and this intelligence was passed on to NATO’s Intelligence Committee via Turkey’s G-2.
Ankara’s efforts in Bulgaria went beyond covert intelligence collection into covert action. The MAH supported opposition groups to encourage repatriation of Turks in Bulgaria to Turkey. Declassified records in the British National Archives provide the details of Turkish covert action noted by the British mission in Sofia. In 1956, MAH regional chief Maj. Kamil Bey, based in the border city of Kırklareli, recruited a group of Bulgarian emigres to engage in subversive activities in Bulgaria, including sabotage of military and economic targets. These agents were provided with cash, encrypted transmission devices, arms, and forged documents. Details of their targets and the outcome of their missions are not yet declassified.
All this experience shows that Turkey has a lengthy history of conducting covert and clandestine operations in neighboring countries. During the early Cold War, Turkey synchronized its foreign policy aims within a NATO context and its covert activities followed the same path. This synchronization ensured NATO support, prevented diplomatic isolation, and served as an insurance policy against Soviet aggression.
However, in the case of the current Turkish government’s policies in Syria, Ankara is playing the role of a maverick, its policies deliberately out of sync with its traditional Western allies. Covert action, such as arming the rebel groups in Syria, has been the main pillar of Turkey’s recent Middle East policies, which involves the assumption of great risks. Unlike in the early Cold War, Ankara is distrusted by its Western allies. As The Wall Street Journal reported, this distrust was made clear in the words coming out of a senior White House official: “Enough is enough. … This is an international threat, and it’s all coming out of Syria and it’s coming through Turkish territory.” As a result of its covert actions, Turkey finds itself increasingly isolated, especially in its efforts in Syria.
Of late, Ankara has given signals that it is learning from its recent failures in the Middle East. It would not be surprising to see Ankara realigning with its Western allies to recover from its current failures. Turkey’s clandestine policy will no doubt follow the same path. As a result, Ankara’s hidden hand may return back to its Cold War policy of a more synchronized approach with its Western friends to avoid direct confrontation with its neighbors.
Egemen Bezci is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on secret intelligence cooperation between Turkey and the West.