The Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has started using intercepted conversations obtained from surveillance of Western embassies in Turkey in order to cash in on domestic politics.
The escalation of intrusive intelligence gathering specifically directed at Western embassies and close monitoring of US and European diplomats in Ankara was confirmed publicly by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on May 11. Speaking to a group of supporters in Aydın province, Soylu cited excerpts from the transcript of a closed-door meeting in a Western embassy. He did not say how he obtained the information on the content of the talks held at the embassy behind closed doors. It is likely that the intelligence agency hacked the phone of one of the attendees of the meeting or had an asset or informant within the embassy.
The revelation confirmed that police intelligence, the largest intel gathering agency in Turkey, which works under the supervision of the interior minister, managed to listen in on the meeting between foreign diplomats and opposition politicians from the Republican People’s Party( CHP). Although Soylu accused the CHP of meeting with Western diplomats to discuss domestic politics, this was the first time he talked about the content of the conversation.
“I will cite each and every sentence you uttered. You shamelessly talked to the ambassador of a European country about how many seats you will win in 2023 [election]. Let me give you another tidbit. You talked about Çağatay Kılıç”, Soylu said about the meeting. Kılıç is head of the Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and previously served as an advisor to Erdoğan.
“You talked about the fact that the first president [from the opposition alliance] to be elected [in the next election] will serve for two or three years, and then you will have to choose a new president. You evaluated how the Ukraine-Russia crisis and the results of that war would affect Turkey. You talked about all the details within the [opposition] Peoples’ Alliance [bloc], about [opposition political leaders] Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoğlu and how to get votes from the HDP [pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party].”
Although Soylu did not name the country, the pro-government media claimed the meeting was held at the German Embassy in Ankara. Soylu, a far-right politician allied with the Erdoğan government, has for some time publicly targeted the US and European embassies in Turkey, frequently bashing the US and Europe with multiple conspiracy theories.
The targeting of foreign diplomats by the interior minister, whose job it is to protect and secure diplomatic missions and foreign diplomats in Turkey, has raised eyebrows in many foreign capitals that are worried about the safety of their people in Turkey. In December 2016 a police officer employed by the Interior Ministry gunned down the Russian ambassador in the most secure district of Ankara.
It is clear that the Erdoğan government wants to play dirty and apparently decided to run a domestic political campaign ahead of the 2023 elections with a narrative that the opposition is supported by the West which, in its view, aims to topple the Erdoğan government, invade Turkey, dismember it and carve out tiny independent states such as a Kurdish state on the territory of Turkey.
The intelligence obtained from monitoring and surveilling Western embassies and diplomats will continue to be put to use for domestic political consumption and beef up the government’s poisonous anti-Western narrative.
This is not the first time the Erdoğan government has targeted Western embassies for domestic politics. When the country’s largest-ever corruption scandal was made public by prosecutors in December 2013, which incriminated Erdoğan and his family members, Erdoğan immediately claimed there was an international plot against the government, which was further backed by lies and false claims that then-US Ambassador to Turkey Francis J. Ricciardone was behind it.
In a coordinated campaign under orders from Erdoğan, all pro-government media ran front-page stories with pictures of Ricciardone and claimed the US ambassador knew about the graft probes and told a group of European ambassadors in a closed-door meeting that the world would witness the fall of an empire, an apparent reference to then-prime minister Erdoğan.
It turned out that the propaganda team, mostly drawn from the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), cooked up the story of Ricciardone being involved in a scheme attempting to topple the government that was allegedly disclosed in a secret meeting. The day the story was carried in the headlines of five pro-government dailies, Erdoğan brought up the news during a public rally in the Black Sea city of Samsun and threatened to expel Ricciardone as persona non grata.
Targeting the US ambassador helped Erdoğan set the stage to blame the corruption on a Western conspiracy led by Washington when, in fact, there was no evidence to prove that was the case. He also concocted one of the biggest hoaxes in recent history that Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar who has inspired a worldwide network of education and charity work, set up what Erdoğan called a “parallel structure” to remove him from power.
In October 2021 Erdoğan targeted the ambassadors of 10 Western nations — the US, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden — who jointly called for the release of a jailed philanthropist in compliance with a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. He announced that he had instructed his foreign minister to declare them persona non grata and expel them from Turkey.
“I gave the necessary instruction to our foreign minister and said what must be done. ‘These 10 ambassadors must be declared persona non grata at once. You must take care of this immediately,’ I told him,” Erdoğan said in a speech. The Turkish government later reversed its position after it claimed the ambassadors had stepped back from their original statement, an assertion that was challenged by several Western countries including the US.
Although the expulsion did not take place, the noise generated by the government helped shift the debate away from domestic political issues and created a major distraction from the country’s worsening economic outlook.
The recent accusations by the interior minister against Western ambassadors have similar motivations. They will also help the Erdoğan government undermine the opposition by portraying them as traitors who collaborate with those who want to harm Turkey.