Analysis By Aparna Rawal
Post Operation Dost and India’s well-acknowledged humanitarian aid to Turkey amidst the massive earthquake disaster faced by both Syria and Turkey, the question remains would President Recep Tayyip Erdogan soften his narrative against India on the Kashmir question or continue to support Pakistan’s ploy to destabilize India, thereby expanding the Turkish influence in South Asia.
In 2021, reports surfaced of Turkey preparing to send mercenaries to wage proxy wars in Kashmir. According to Pentapostagma, a Greek publication, the task to gather and organize the operation in Kashmir was entrusted to a Turkish private military company called SADAT.
In 2022, reports surfaced of foreign fighters and mercenary groups being mobilized by SADAT to be deployed in Palestine and Kashmir. These reports were confirmed when the Syrian National Army (SNA) militia commander, “Sulayman Shah Brigades,” Muhammed Abu Amsha, declared the displacement of some of their units to the Kashmir region.
These units are believed to be repositioned from the city of Şiyê near the Afrin region. Afrin is one of the three original regions of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Amsha also mentioned each recruit would be paid an initial remuneration of $2,000.
Further reports of similar recruitment activity spreading to Azaz, Jarablus, Bab, and Idlib have made news fastidiously.
It is essential to note SADAT has been directly involved in the training of the Syrian Sunni fighters since their fight against Assad and has also been known to send its voluntary SNA fighters into Libya.
To comprehend the gravity of SADAT’s influence, it is imperative to understand the ability of such PMCs to combine “the political strategy with the military muscle” to honor the bidding of a particular political regime in a nation.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are a notable example of PMC types. It has managed to gain control in areas in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Unlike the Iranian armed forces – Artesh, the IRGC remains loyal to a political regime and not the nation alone.
PMCs give their nations the advantage of “informality and deniability.” The countries are clandestinely able to participate in paramilitary operations, engage in terrorist activities or indirectly exert their influence in external regional conflicts outside Turkey, especially in regions of their interest.
The Wagner group connected with Yevgeny Prigozhin has also acted as auxiliaries and as an element catering to deniable actions on behalf of Russia.
With SADAT joining the league of such PMCs, it has started to work as a critical link between Ankara and the proxy foreign fighters abroad by providing the necessary logistics, weapons, funds, and training. A quid pro quo approach is established without Turkey taking the sole onus of interfering in international conflicts.
Erdogan has successfully and effectively consolidated the power through purges and constitutional referendums to gain dominance and control over institutions in Turkey. In 2002, when Erdogan became a prime minister, the Turkish military was inclined towards secular and Kemalist traditions (established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk).
This had always presented as an obstacle to the Islamic ideologies which Erdogan catered to. Initially, assuming the pretext of a democratic leader in support of Ataturk’s doctrines, Erdogan gained the support of both conservative and liberal groups.
Having garnered massive support within Turkey, Erdogan turned his back on his allies and established an authoritarian rule and policies. Since then, Erdogan has tried to champion Islam and export his influence by engaging his paramilitary and proxy fighters in various regions.
Erdogan’s paramilitary operates in three ways; the first layer is through the utilization of private military companies and defense/security contractors, the second is through criminal/mafia networks, and lastly, through various youth brigades or associations.
Adnan Tanriverdi founded SADAT in 2012. Tanriverdi belongs to a group of military officers dismissed from the Turkish military due to their extremist Islamist leanings in the 1990s.
Tanriverdi was also a columnist for Yeni Akit, a pro-government and Islamic publication that empathizes with extremist or radical Islamic groups. In 2012, reports of several SADAT bases in Marmara and Istanbul came to light.
In 2015, Tanriverdi called for establishing autonomous Turkmen and Sunni Arab areas around the Turkish Syrian borders.
Despite Tanriverdi’s disposition, he was later appointed as Erdogan’s chief advisor post the July 15, 2016, coup attempt in Turkey. His appointment can be owed to SADAT’s involvement in oppressing the 2016 coup. Pictures and videos taken by civilians of the SADAT personnel attacking the putschists on the Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul emerged on social media platforms in 2016.
In 2018, the Israeli Shabak or Shin Bet maintained SADAT’s involvement with Hamas. By 2020, the US African command report also mentioned the participation of SADAT in training Syrian mercenaries and Libyan militia. Later the involvement of SADAT in the Nagorno-Karabakh war also surfaced.
According to SADAT’s website, its mission statement is to “establish a defensive collaboration and defensive industrial cooperation among Islamic countries to help the Islamic World take place where it merits among the superpowers by providing consultancy and training services.”
The website’s Turkish version sounds less PMC-like, referring to the Western states as “imperialists” or the “Crusaders.” According to Michael Rubin (American Enterprise Institute), SADAT has also trained members of ISIS and Al Nusrat. According to Qatari leaks, the Sudanese port city of Suakin is also a playground for SADAT activities.
The recent talks of SADAT sending mercenaries to Kashmir don’t surprise either, given that Erdogan has consistently advocated supporting Pakistan’s position of holding a plebiscite under the UN to determine the possibility of Kashmir joining Pakistan.
In 2016, Turkish President Erdogan, during his visit to Pakistan, addressed the Pakistani parliament attended by Pakistan’s military high command and pledged his support to Pakistan on the Kashmir question.
The diplomatic and military relations between Pakistan and Turkey have considerably expanded. Through mutual understanding, both support a mutual bidding against India.
On the one hand, Turkey has displayed solidarity with India in its fight against terrorism by condemning the Naxalite attack on the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel at Sukma in the past. On the other hand, it remained silent on cross-border terror attacks from Pakistan. Hence, SADAT is expected to make claims regarding sending its forces to Kashmir.
For years SADAT has been interacting with various jihadist groups in South Asia and has shown an affinity for many Kashmir-born terrorists. Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, a convicted felon who served time in US federal prison, has been a close associate of SADAT.
Recently, Fai was seen at a SADAT meeting hailing the SADAT’s Islamist mercenaries and jihadist fighters as heroes while comparing them to the volunteers, fighters, and mercenaries sent to Ukraine.
The meeting was also attended by Mesut Hakkı Caşın, the Turkish president’s advisor on security and foreign policy, and Pakistani Senator Muhammad Talha Mahmood, the federal minister for states and frontier regions.
Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief is an NGO run by İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH, on the Pakistani side of Kashmir.
IHH has links with terror outfits such as al-Qaeda, direct ties with the Popular Front of India (PFI), and is believed to be aligned with Turkish President Erdogan. The outfit is associated with the Turkish intelligence agency MIT, led by Erdogan’s close ally Hakan Fidan. Fidan also remains a close associate of SADAT.
With Turkey backing the Pakistani campaign against India, the level of threats and risks against Indian nationals and diplomats is concerning.
On December 12, 1992, three members of a terrorist outfit – Tevhid Selam, a proxy group handled by Iran’s Quds Force, detonated a bomb in the car of an Indian diplomat Yash Paul Kumar in Ankara. Fortunately, Kumar escaped with no injuries.
Upon investigation, it was revealed that Ferhan Özmen, the mastermind behind the attack, wanted to convey a message to India concerning the events in Kashmir. Such a precedent makes forecasting future events more probable, given that more actors like SADAT are now engaging in campaigns against India.
Proxy wars will continue as the norm in the future. Due to power competition between states in arenas of security, influence, and resources, most states are expected to employ such methods to achieve their objectives without engaging in a conventional war.
Proxy wars ensure a stand for deniability, are effectively quick in attaining immediate goals, unlike a conventional war, and are cost-effective compared to a war that would directly affect the state economically, politically, and diplomatically.
As seen in the wars in Libya and Syria, the proxy wars are no longer unilateral matters but multilateral issues due to the proxy coalitions which would rise from the understanding between regional forces and global powers.
States like Turkey, Iran, and Russia use proxy wars for their strategic interests. The US has seen to adopt a short-term transactional approach to the proxies.
While proxy forces may appear advantageous to the states employing them, it may not always be implausible to connect to whom most may be affiliated.
The laws of armed conflict are yet to completely catch up to the legal status of certain PMCs and the degree of state responsibilities in proxy wars. In such cases, there is a looming threat that nations like India cannot overlook or deny.
- Aparna Rawal is an Indian research analyst specializing in the Af/Pak region and counter-terrorism. VIEWS PERSONAL
- The author can be reached at aparnarawal (at) gmail.com