Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) secretly arranged a meeting with leaders of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in May 2014 to make a deal, a well-placed confidential source who had knowledge on the details of the meeting told Nordic Monitor.
According to the account of the whistleblower, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, the meeting was planned by Kemal Eskintan, a senior figure in MIT who was 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 Akcakale. The meeting was held in the conference room located on the entry level of the garrison.
According to the recollections of the source, MIT was also represented at the meeting by an intelligence officer, known only by his first name, Ali, who was the regional director for Şanlıurfa province at the time. Intelligence officer Kemal Alkan, who was attached to the 20th Mechanized Brigade in the same province, and Col. Nazmi Sezen, commander of the border regiment, joined the meeting to represent the Turkish army with the approval of their superiors.
The meeting with the ISIS leaders was held in order 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 surrounded 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 Erdoğan government with ISIS, it was too late.
In fact, in August 2014 the Taraf daily reported that Turkey had promised to hand over the territory surrounding the tomb of Süleyman Şah to ISIS in exchange for Turkish citizens who were taken hostage at Turkey’s Consulate General in Mosul in June. The newspaper was seized and shut down by the Erdoğan government in July 2016, and some of its editors and reporters were jailed.
During the routine change of guard mission in April 2014, Turkish troops were stopped by ISIS in in Syrian territory some five to 10 kilometers from the tomb. The troops had to turn back after threats were made by ISIS, and the soldiers guarding the tomb were not relieved and received no supplies. At the time, 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. They had the firepower and capability to easily crush ISIS, but the Erdoğan government did not give the go-ahead for a military mission to neutralize the threat and extract the troops.
Instead, a bargain with ISIS was planned. During the secret meeting in May, the Turkish side sought access to the site from ISIS, and ISIS asked the Turkish government 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, according to the minutes of the meeting seen by the source, who worked for Turkey’s security establishment for years.
The source, who served in the border region, verified that the food and medical supplies were delivered as requested by ISIS after the meeting. He said under instructions from then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip 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 soldiers guarding the tomb.
The traffic and communications between ISIS and Turkish authorities continued afterwards, with MIT officer Eskintan personally overseeing the operations. “He [Eskintan] had been spending a lot of time in border provinces and shuttling back and forth from Ankara. He was the key operative for MIT to make bargains with ISIS under the approval of intelligence chief Hakan Fidan,” the source stated.
As for the release of ISIS militants from Turkish prisons, the source did not have direct knowledge but said he heard from other members of the security establishment that this condition was also met. He said he suspected that scores of ISIS militants were turned over and let go into Syria in a deal similar to what the Turkish government did in exchange for securing the release of consulate staff and Turkish nationals in Mosul. He was referring to a June 11, 2014 incident in which 49 people — three non-Turkish personnel and 46 Turks including Consul General Öztürk Yılmaz and other diplomatic staff, special force members and children — were taken hostage by ISIS. The authorities imposed a media ban on the crisis, while critics accused the Erdoğan government of failing to order a timely evacuation of the consulate in defiance of recommendations.
The hostages were freed in September 2014 after what President Erdoğan said was a pre-planned covert operation by MİT. The hostages were released in what was widely believed to be a secret deal of freeing ISIS terrorists from Turkish jails. Takva Haber, a Turkish news website close to ISIS, claimed after the release that the hostages were freed on the orders of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed last week in the Turkish-controlled Idlib region of Syria. The site also claimed that Turkey negotiated with ISIS on the hostage issue and that this means Turkey indirectly recognizes ISIS.
According to the source who had privy to the secret communications, the May 2014 meeting with ISIS was approved by Hulusi Akar, then the commander of the Land Forces who was later promoted to chief of general staff and is now minister of defense in the Erdoğan government. It was overseen on the ground by Brig. Gen. İhsan Başbozkurt, commander of the 20th Mechanized Brigade in Şanlıurfa province. Başbozkurt got a green light for the meeting from his superior officer, Lt. Gen. Abdullah Recep, commander of the Diyarbakır 7th Army Corps, which was attached to the Second Army, headquartered in Malatya under the command of Gen. Galip Mendi at the time. The local officials who expressed concern about negotiating with a terrorist group were overruled.
On February 21, 2015 the Turkish military launched an operation dubbed “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 clashes 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.
Both operations got under way at 9 p.m. on the night of February 21, 2015. The troops arrived at the tomb at 12:30 a.m. the next day and left the tomb at 4:45 a.m. after exhuming the remains in a ceremony. The remains were brought to Turkey and 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 source also verified that the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) helped Turkey’s cross-border operation into Syria despite denials from Turkish authorities. “We were on the ground and involved in this operation, and there was no question that Turkey had received help from the PYD,” he added.
Murat Karayılan, a senior Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, claimed on February 23, 2015 that Turkey informed the PYD and People’s Protection Units (YPG) of its military operation in advance. He stated that the YPG opened a safe corridor for Turkish tanks going to rescue the Turkish troops, while YPG vehicles escorted the tanks. Fighters from the YPG reportedly created a five-kilometer-long corridor while Turkish units entered the Rojava Canton of Kobane through the Mürşitpınar border gate en route to the tomb of Süleyman Şah. He also argued that the government must have had an agreement with ISIS given that ISIS let Turkish troops proceed to the tomb without incident.
The tomb was declared Turkish territory under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when France 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 source said he believes this was a deliberate decision made by the Erdoğan government to justify aiding and abetting ISIS and securing the release of captive ISIS terrorists from the hands of the criminal justice system in Turkey. He recalled that the Erdoğan government also overruled Turkish diplomats’ recommendation to vacate the consulate general in Mosul in the face of a rapid ISIS advance on the Iraqi province.
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. The location of the temporary burial ground for Süleyman Şah is on the Syrian side of the border, under the control of the YPG, a Syrian offshoot of the PKK, at the time. Turkish tanks and armored vehicles are positioned around the designated area, and the governor has declared the area a prohibited military zone.