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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

As Turkey fights in Afrin a different battle is unfolding at home 

The story behind the former general who has joined president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's inner circle

Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan chairs a security meeting in Ankara on January 23, 2018, that was attended by Adnan Tanriverdi, second from right. Kayhan Ozer / Presidential Palace via Reuters
Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan chairs a security meeting in Ankara on January 23, 2018, that was attended by Adnan Tanriverdi, second from right. Kayhan Ozer / Presidential Palace via Reuters

The picture of a high-level meeting on military operations in Syria's Afrin region initially appeared no different from dozens released every year by Turkey's presidential palace.

But the presence of one man, sitting at the top table in public for the first time last week, changed that.

Adnan Tanriverdi has emerged as a key adviser to president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The 73-year-old left Turkey's army as a brigadier general in 1996. He prospered as the head of a military contracting firm before joining the president's inner circle.

The meeting in Ankara has thrown a spotlight on his role, stoking claims he is involved in plans to safeguard Mr Erdogan's position in elections next year.

That is because Mr Tanriverdi is in charge of Sadat, a military contractor linked to the training of Syrian fighters opposing president Bashar Al Assad. The firm openly advertises itself as a specialist in "unconventional warfare".

Sadat has also been accused of operating military-style training camps in Turkey. The company denies the claims.

Mr Tanriverdi joined Mr Erdogan's team in August 2016, just weeks after generals failed to topple the Turkish leader in a coup attempt.

Soon after starting his job Turkey launched an incursion into Syria.

Sadat's website describes the company as an international consultancy with a mission to establish defence co-operation between Muslim countries. But it lists its capabilities in training clients in counter-terrorism warfare and military tactics including ambushes, demolitions, sabotage as well as rescue and abduction operations.

Last Tuesday's meeting was focused on the military offensive against the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish group that has been America's main ally against ISIL. Turkey sees the YPG as terrorists because of their ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has conducted a decades-long campaign against the state, leaving more than 40,000 dead.

But with opposition politicians already accusing Turkey's president of centralising power following the coup attempt, Mr Tanriverdi's past has come to the fore.

He reportedly left the army, a long-time bastion of secularism, amid claims of "reactionary activities". Referring to the founder of modern Turkey, one retired general, Ahmet Yavuz, called Mr Tanriverdi "an enemy of Ataturk".

Beyond the claims that Sadat has trained fighters for Syria, Meral Aksener, founder and leader of the nationalist Good Party, said the company used sites in Turkey’s Tokat and Konya provinces to provide military instruction to the president's supporters.

She said cadres from Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) would be deployed to "create confusion" if there was an "undesired outcome" in next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections, in which the Turkish leader is seeking to cement his grip on power.

"One of them is a structure called Sadat," she told the left-wing Sozcu newspaper when asked about who was behind the training camps.

Prosecutors are investigating the claims. The presidency did not respond to a request for comment.

The elections scheduled for November 2019 follow a referendum held last year that saw Mr Erdogan narrowly secure support for constitutional changes that could see him rule until 2029.

Speaking at the party’s Ankara headquarters, Ms Aksener's deputy Umit Ozdag said the camps contained "a lot of AKP supporters who are training for a domestic struggle".

Concerns about the use of civilian militias in domestic politics has been fuelled by a recent emergency decree issued by Mr Erdogan that critics say opens the door to vigilantism.

Passed under special powers introduced after the failed coup, it grants immunity to citizens who took to the streets to oppose the plotters, terrorism and other acts considered part of the failed putsch.

Although the government has said the law applies only to the evening of the coup attempt and the morning that followed, lawyers and opposition figures say it paves the way for pro-AKP vigilantes.

"The state has transferred its authority to civilians by saying citizens who fight against terror or the coup in the future will not be charged with criminal offences," Murat Emir, an MP for the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), said.

“This is, for me, the laying of the foundation of what they are planning for the future. It would be too optimistic to accept the excuses that several officials give — that this was a technical error during drafting of the law.

“We cannot guess how these forces might be used but maybe somebody intends to use them against democracy.”

Mr Ozdag, the Good Party deputy leader, said the decree is framed "for events in the future", noting that Mr Erdogan has previously accused them of backing terrorists.

While Turkish attention has been focused on Afrin it is the emergence of Sadat that has raised fears about the atmosphere that will prevail at next year’s elections.

Mr Emir, who has called for a parliamentary inquiry into Sadat, said its activities lie in the shadows.

"We only know a little bit about this group," he told The National in an interview. "We know the founder is a senior adviser to the president therefore we can guess that this organisation has some good relations with the Turkish military and some other government institutions.

"We don't know what they do. The website says they cover everything to do with domestic warfare. We have seen pro-government forces showing off the raising of this military power — they’re using scare tactics on the opposition.

“If you add all this up, the regime of the palace is now building up a military power that it can use in the future … We fear that they’re working on establishing a paramilitary force."

In a statement on its website, Sadat condemned "ugly and unfounded accusations" about its activities and refuted any illegality.