Turkish Intelligence and The Cold War

Strange bedfellows: How Turkish intelligence influenced the Western alliance during the Cold War
5 min read
London
27 May, 2021
Book Club: Egemen Bezci delves deep into the lesser-known intelligence pact between Turkey, the US and the UK during the Cold War, showing how Ankara's diplomatic pragmatism allowed it to protect its national interests.
Turkish intelligence services were able to influence crucial areas of the Cold War such as nuclear policy, whilst exploiting cooperation to suit their own strategic interests.

When we think of the Cold War, we tend to think of the intelligence war waged by the American CIA and the Soviet KGB and we imagine a binary relationship between two equal sides. However, the Cold War was much more than this and included asymmetrical alliances with countries who had uneasy relationships with the two dominant powers, Egemen Bezci’s Turkish Intelligence & The Cold War: The Turkish Secret Service, The US and The UK, takes us into the world of Turkish espionage from the end of the Second World War until the 1960s.

A key difference between the United States, the United Kingdom and Turkey, Bezci argues, is intelligence cooperation between the US and the UK is viewed to be a long-term strategic interest by both countries, whereas Turkey views its relationship with both Western nations as tactical and on an issue by issue basis.

"Turkish decision-makers used secret intelligence liaison during the early years of the Cold War to deceive and manipulate their Western partners to obtain their commitment to Turkish strategic imperatives which were not necessarily aligned with the Cold War context," according to the book. "This caused the Turkish-Western Alliance to be built on distrust at its inception.”

As a minor power with great foreign policy ambitions, Ankara often deployed unseen means to influence areas removed from Turkish control after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire

The lack of interest in a long-term strategic partnership during this period in Ankara was driven by a deeply rooted distrust of the West and the fear of being the ‘weaker partner,' the book argues.

Egemen Bezci argues intelligence diplomacy, a mechanism which not only synchronises the activities of Turkey’s spy service with its foreign ministry but also enables us to think of espionage as an extension of international diplomacy, was geared towards keeping Turkey out of ‘subordination to the United States but also playing upon America’s fears of the spread of Communism to enlist their help in taking down internal enemies, which in many cases had nothing to do with the Soviet threat.

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Beyond internal threats, intelligence diplomacy was also used when dealing with its neighbours, “Covert action has long been an appealing tool for Turkish decision-makers,” the book argues, adding that “As a minor power with great foreign policy ambitions, Ankara often deployed these unseen means to influence areas removed from Turkish control after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.”

Turkey’s covert actions were part of its attempt to expand its influence while avoiding outright confrontation with the great powers, however, as Bezci cautions it's important not to think of Ankara’s operations solely through the prism of the East-West rivalry as it often had nothing to do with that nor should we see it as part of a colonial struggle used by some Western states, rather, “For Turkey, covert action was rather a means for revising the conditions imposed by the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and by doing so obtaining the support of its Western allies for Turkey endeavours in the Cold War context.”

An interesting example used to explore the cost of covert action and intelligence diplomacy is Turkey’s decision to wage a secret war in Syria. In 1957, the government of Adnan Menderes was preparing for military action against Syria due to fears Damascus was about to fall to communism, when during a cabinet meeting the US ambassador to Ankara, Fletcher Warren, burst in and demanded Turkey pull back from military action due to concerns in Washington that direct action could push Syria farther into the leftist camp.

For Menderes, intervention into Syria was not solely about the threat of a hostile government in Damascus, but also due to concerns his own military might be plotting against him and so he hoped to keep them busy with military action. However, the Americans were not opposed to trying to remove the left-wing regime in Damascus, they encouraged the use of covert action to do it instead.

[The Book] gets us to think about the Cold War from outside the simple binary of the East-West divide, it enables us to examine non-Western approaches to espionage and gets us to analyse how weaker powers respond to the asymmetrical relationships

While Soviet influence was the prime concern for Washington for Ankara, the threat of Arab nationalism posed to territories claimed by Turkey, particularly the Hatay province, which Ankara reclaimed from Syria in 1939, was the key driver.

Turkey hoped to use the United States’ desire to contain communism to resolve these other issues. Ankara began plotting to topple the Syrian regime, it did this by backing Arab tribes hostile to the ruling party to clash with regime forces, churning out propaganda, staging bomb attacks against officers in the Baath party and the Turkish military would directly intervene in Syria’s border region.

The issue with Turkey’s actions is that they did not have American approval to do them and many in Washington were uneasy with Turkey playing a large role in Syria.

Ankara tried various means to get US and NATO backing including telling Belgium and Norway that they had been sanctioned by the US to raid Syria, weaponising misinformation to elicit support was a key feature of intelligence diplomacy.

The attempted coup not only failed, but it also divided the NATO alliance, increased East-West tensions and made Washington distrustful of Ankara.

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Turkish Intelligence & The Cold War is unique in several ways, it gets us to think about the Cold War from outside the simple binary of the East-West divide, enables us to examine non-Western approaches to espionage and gets us to analyse how weaker powers respond to the asymmetrical relationships.

While we do not have a great deal of declassified information from Turkey, the study makes great use of what resources are available.

Hopefully, the piece will contribute to more critical studies on the Cold War and espionage, a key drawback of the work is the overall lack of studies in this area and this means we have little to compare it to or check it against. More research on the role of Turkish security services might yield different explanations for Turkey’s behaviour and this is my main hesitation with dealing with this study, but despite my concerns here it is a well-worth read.

Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt