American spy chief David Petraeus' visit to Turkey comes at critical time amid the huge influx into Turkey in recent days of Syrian refugees fleeing Bashar al-Assad's forces' deadly onslaught and increasing chatter over covert Iranian operations that are targeting Turkish and Western interests.
The plane carrying Petraeus, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, was expected to land in İstanbul on Sunday, and he was scheduled to meet with top Turkish officials including Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan.
“The Americans want to convey a strong message that Washington will stand by its ally in its fight against the recent surge of terror by the Kurdistan Workers' Party [PKK], a separatist organization that now has the backing of Iran and Syria,” an intelligence analyst told Today's Zaman when asked what to make of Petraeus' visit.
“I think the US is also trying to make up for its lack of support for Turkey's non-starter call for a humanitarian safe zone inside Syria, which the US declined to endorse at the UN Security Council meeting last week,” he added.
Alarmed at the more than 80,000 Syrians who have fled across its borders, with thousands more waiting to enter, Turkey dispatched Davutoğlu to New York to secure a safe haven inside Syria so that the violence and terror could be contained from spilling over onto the Turkish side. Turkey's appeal did not gain strong backing at the council, and the meeting ended without even a nonbinding statement of support.
The US's position was somewhat of a surprise to Turkey, which expected that the traditional backers of the Syrian regime, Russia and China who had already vetoed three Western-backed council resolutions, would have opposed the move while the US would have sided with its NATO ally, Turkey, on the safe haven issue. But that did not happen.
“Though the US said ‘no' to the safe haven proposal for the moment, the leaking of Petraeus' visit to the media shows that Washington is with Turkey in general when it comes to confronting challenges from the Syrian crisis,” the same analyst said, declining to be named.
Others say that the US spymaster's visit is also a strong message to Iran, a country that is increasingly taking a belligerent position against its western neighbor over its Syrian policy.
A Turkish court in Erzurum ordered the detention of seven suspects who were detained in an investigation into an Iranian spy ring found to be operating in the eastern province of Iğdır, bordering Iran.
The arrest came after a year-long investigation into an Iranian spy network that Turkish officials described as secret plot to identify sensitive targets in Turkey for possible attacks and feed the classified information to the PKK terror organization. The Iğdır Governor's Office announced in a written statement last week that the police detained eight Turkish suspects in simultaneous operations on charges of spying for Iranian intelligence. The arrests stem from the expansion of an investigation by police after the arrest of two Iranian citizens and one Turkish citizen on Aug. 19, 2011, all of whom were found in possession of digital recorders with information on state security.
The exposé over the Iranian spy network in Turkey followed harsh statements from Iranian officials in recent months threatening Turkey over Ankara's Syrian policy. Recent comments made by the Iranian chief of General Staff indicating that “it will be Turkey's turn” if it continues to “help advance the warmongering policies of the United States in Syria,” triggered an unusually harsh rebuke from Ankara.
In remarks that are likely to further increase tensions, an Iranian lawmaker also said Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan's government's interference in Syria would be a blow to his political future. “I advise Mr. Erdoğan and his friends not to engage in this issue; undoubtedly, in Turkey's future elections, Erdoğan's party will be the victim of such matters,” said Ebrahim Aqa-Mohammadi, a member of Iran's Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, according to Press TV.
Coupled with these statements, a growing body of intelligence evidence indicating that Iran has lent support to PKK terrorists, giving them shelter and ammunition, created a string of resentments against Tehran in the Turkish capital. The killing of six Turkish soldiers and two village guards by PKK terrorists near the Iranian border early in August increased the level of criticism against Iran. The belief that the terrorists carried out the attack after sneaking over from Iran has drawn even stronger reactions.
Retired military judge Faik Tarımcıoğlu told Today's Zaman that he views the CIA director's visit this time to be different than all of Petraeus' previous trips to Turkey. “I think he will be discussing detailed proposals on how to deal with Syria and Iran at this juncture, while promising further support to contain the PKK terror,” he stated, adding that the US has a lot at its disposal to counter the PKK terror threat targeting Turkey.
Stressing that Iran is no foreigner to supporting terror groups in the Middle East, Tarımcıoğlu said Tehran had supported the PKK against Turkey in the past. “This is not new. The mullahs' regime is trying to expand its influence in the Middle East and the PKK terror is just a means of trying to break Sunni-majority Turkey's resolve on many issues, most specifically on Syria,” he explained.
*Ali Aslan Kilic contributed to this report from Ankara