Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) secretly arranged three meetings with representatives of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in spring 2014 for negotiations, multiple sources who had knowledge of the meetings told Nordic Monitor.
According to the sources, who had worked in security in the Turkish capital and border provinces, Lt. Col. Alper Örün, commander of the 3rd Border Battalion, attended three meetings with senior ISIS militants who were escorted to Turkey’s border town of Suruç in Şanlıurfa province. A military intelligence officer identified only by his first name of Mesut was also among the participants of the meeting.
Nordic Monitor previously reported on a secret meeting in May 2014 with ISIS leaders that was planned by Kemal Eskintan, a senior figure in MIT responsible for the Syria file and running special operations for the intelligence agency. The three ISIS leaders who were invited to the meeting were picked up at the border crossing at Tal Abyad and brought to a military garrison in the town of Akçakale. The meeting was held in the conference room located on the entry level of the garrison. Intelligence officer Kemal Alkan, who was attached to the 20th Mechanized Brigade in Şanlıurfa province, and Col. Tamer Nazmi Sezen, commander of the 3rd Border Regiment, joined the meeting to represent the Turkish army with the approval of their superiors.
The sources, who wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons, claimed there were more meetings held between MIT, military officials and ISIS representatives in the spring of 2014 as part of efforts to broker a deal on the rules of engagement between the two sides. The new revelations suggest the relations between Turkish officials and ISIS were stronger than initially thought and mapped out a web of ties to the jihadist network, which had wreaked havoc in Syria and Iraq.
The meeting with the ISIS leaders was held to resolve difficulties the Turkish military had been experiencing in sending replacements and logistical supplies to some 40 Turkish troops guarding the tomb of Süleyman Şah — the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire — which was located in Syrian territory some 30 kilometers from the Turkish border. ISIS militants had been surrounding the tomb since March 2014, preventing the delivery of food and water. Soldiers were trapped near the tomb, and a change of guard that usually takes place every two or three months did not occur.
Preceding the ISIS siege, the Turkish military had repeatedly asked the government to move the tomb to a secure location, but the requests were denied. By the time ISIS took over the territory around the tomb, reportedly part of another deal by the government of then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with ISIS, it was too late.
According to the recollections of one source, ISIS drove a hard bargain in the talks, asking for a detailed list of vehicles and names of the troops to be deployed for the protection of the tomb. When ISIS rejected the use of tanks in the military convoy, the Turkish side agreed to take out the tanks from the deployment. Lt. Col. Örün was the lead man who had developed strong ties with ISIS, led military convoys to ISIS-held areas as commander and often talked to ISIS leaders in Syria through a translator to sort out difficulties.
Another source who had been assigned to the Ankara security service told Nordic Monitor there were a total of some 40-42 troops guarding the tomb in Syria and that the mandate to protect the tomb was jointly coordinated by the 20th Mechanized Brigade in Şanlıurfa, the Commando Brigade in Kayseri and the Special Forces Command in Ankara. He said they had the firepower and capability to easily crush ISIS but that the Erdoğan government did not give the go-ahead for a military mission to neutralize the threat and extract the troops.
The same source said ISIS maintained a checkpoint on the road some 300-350-meters from the tomb. A noncommissioned officer identified only by his first name of Mahmut who spoke Arabic and was stationed at the tomb spoke to ISIS militants at the checkpoint from time to time and reported back to the command headquarters of the border battalion and brigade. In his reports Mahmut informed his superiors that MIT had been working with ISIS to come to an agreement and that the mandate for negotiations was authorized by Ankara.
The third source, who was working for the General Staff at the time, said Gen. Hulusi Akar, the then-commander of the Land Forces, gave the order to conduct secret talks with ISIS and authorized the 20th Mechanized Brigade in Şanlıurfa to host three meetings with ISIS leaders. Akar, fearing that the talks might be leaked to the media, was quite sensitive on the secrecy of the negotiations, the source said, adding that Akar personally instructed his subordinates to insure the secrecy.
The ISIS militants were picked up from the Akçakale-Tal Abyad border crossing by MIT intelligence officers and escorted into Turkey using border guard routes in the first-degree forbidden military zone along the border. They were later returned to Syria through a point near the Turkish town of Karkamış (or Kargamış) in Gaziantep province, which is located on the road to Jarabulus in Syria. Col. Sezen and Lt. Col. Örün had coordinated safe passage for the ISIS leaders from Syria and insured their safe return to Syria after the talks.
The Erdoğan government has rewarded all the key officers who were involved in the secret talks with ISIS. Akar was made chief of general staff and later defense minister. Col. Sezen was promoted in 2016 and appointed commander of the 65th Mechanized Infantry Brigade in Kirklaraeli province near the Greek and Bulgarian borders. Intelligence officer Alkan was saved by the government from his long-running legal troubles. He was indicted for the murder of Turkish national Nezir Tekçi in a mine explosion in the Kurdish town of Yüksekova in 1995 and dismembering his body. With the help of the Erdoğan government, he was acquitted of the charges in 2015.
During the negotiations ISIS asked the Turkish officials to release ISIS militants from jail and facilitate their travel to Syria. The ISIS leaders also demanded the delivery of food and medical supplies to communities under ISIS rule in exchange for access to the site of the tomb. Under instructions from then-Prime Minister and now President Erdoğan, the coordinating governor in Gaziantep shipped food and medical supplies to ISIS regions in Syria. In exchange ISIS allowed the Turkish military to resume shipping food and water to the soldiers guarding the tomb.
The traffic and communications between ISIS and Turkish authorities continued afterwards, with MIT officer Eskintan personally overseeing the operations in coordination with his boss, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. The Erdoğan government had also released detained ISIS militants and turned a blind eye to their travel to Syria.
On February 21, 2015 the Turkish military launched “Operation Shah Euphrates” to bring back 38 troops guarding the tomb. The operation, which came after the deal with ISIS, was a success, with no problems reported except that one soldier was killed in an accident. Thirty-nine tanks, 57 armored vehicles and 572 troops took part in two operations inside Syria — one at the tomb of Süleyman Şah near Aleppo, and a simultaneous operation in another region of Syria near the Turkish border to take control of an area designated as the new burial place for Süleyman Şah’s remains.
The troops destroyed the tomb complex for security reasons. The first unit of troops returned to Turkey at around 6 a.m. on the morning of February 22. The extraction operation was planned to last three hours but took almost six because ISIS had destroyed the roads in the area.
The original tomb was declared Turkish territory under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when it ruled Syria. Turkey regarded it as sovereign territory and had repeatedly vowed to defend it from any attack. The Turkish military, however, proposed relocating the tomb before the ISIS takeover, but the government rejected the military’s proposal until it was too late.
The newly designated temporary burial place is located 200 meters from the Turkish-Syrian border, close to the village of Eşme in the southeastern Turkish province of Şanlıurfa.