BACKGROUND: Although Hakan Fidan’s predecessor at the foreign ministry was not a controversial figure, several other ministers in the previous cabinet were. Treasury and Finance minister Nureddin Nebati, who was closely associated with Erdogan’s policy of low-interest rates, has been replaced with Mehmet Şimşek, a former banker, well-regarded by in the finance industry. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu was also replaced. In recent months, he had accused the US of supporting terrorism and seeking to tamper with Turkey’s elections. Despite the backing he receives from the far-right, these undiplomatic statements were not rewarded. Fidan, by contrast, is not known for aggressive, impolitic statements. The appointment of Fidan may thus be part of an effort to present a “moderate” image to international institutions and countries like the United States.
Fidan is the longest-serving director of MİT since its establishment in 1965. Until the 1990s, the organization was overseen by military officers. Thereafter, it was placed under civilian control. At the time of his appointment in 2010, Fidan was the youngest man to lead it and only the second to be appointed from outside the intelligence community. But he was familiar with intelligence and the workings of the organization. He had spent his twenties and early thirties in the army, serving part of that time in the intelligence unit of the NATO Rapid Reaction Cops based in Germany. During this time, he earned a master’s degree from Bilkent University with a thesis comparing the organization of Turkey’s intelligence agencies with those in the US and UK.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 20002, only a year after Fidan left the army. The new party was looking for loyal officials who could help it implement its policies regardless of entrenched bureaucracies in institutions like the foreign ministry, which had a tradition of autonomy. One AKP strategy to cut out the bureaucracy involved pursuing its policies through smaller organizations. Fidan, for example, was appointed head of the Turkish Co-operation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), which oversees business promotion, foreign aid, development programs, and restoring religious sites. Under Fidan management (2003-2007), the agency expanded its activities in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans; the number of projects it managed quadrupled. (In 2006, amid this activity, Fidan found the time to write a doctoral thesis on “Diplomacy in the Information Age.”)
As an important member of the AKP’s foreign policy team, Fidan was close with Abdullah Gül and Ahmet Davutoğlu. When Gül became president in 2007, Fidan was considered for a post in his administration. Instead, Fidan was placed under Davutoğlu in the prime minister’s office, where he gained experience dealing with sensitive issues. He served as Turkey’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency during a period of acute tension between the US and Iran, and he became involved in Turkey’s own negotiations with the PKK. When MIT head Emre Taner reached retirement in 2010, Fidan was a logical replacement.
His first years were marked by tensions with Israel, which accused him of being an Iranian sympathizer. He entered office just days before the Mavi Marmara crisis in which Israeli commandos raided a ship delivering humanitarian materials to Gaza, killing ten. The ship was operated by a NGO close to the AKP, and its efforts to challenge the Israeli blockade were criticized by self-exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, whose organization emphasized interfaith dialogue over confrontation.
At the same time, Gülen’s movement placed a strong emphasis on Turkishness and opposed concessions to Kurdish nationalism that might placate the PKK. In 2012, prosecutors linked to the Gülen movement ordered Fidan to testify about his negotiations with the PKK. The AKP responded by passing legislation to further shield MIT and its officials from oversight. The incident was one of the first volleys in the battle between the AKP government and the Gülen movement. As these intensified between 2012 and 2016 Fidan and MİT were frequently targeted. Wiretaps revealed high-level discussions and investigations implicated MİT in supplying weapons to militant groups in Syria.
Fidan’s appointment is the achievement of an ambition dating back at least eight years. In advance of the 2015 elections, Fidan stepped down from his post at MİT to stand as an AKP candidate. The resignation became an embarrassment when President Erdoğan opposed it and Fidan returned to his post. Prime Minister Davutoğlu, who had supported Fidan’s candidacy, perhaps with the promise of the foreign ministry post, was left politically weakened. While Fidan’s stymied candidacy indicated his political ambition, it also revealed his importance (and, ultimate, deference) to Erdoğan.
IMPLICATIONS: The controversies from Fidan’s time as head of MİT suggest that he is both well-prepared but also an awkward fit for the post of foreign minister. In many respects, he has already been performing the role for some time, acting, in the words of one influential columnist, as a “shadow foreign minister.” Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War often encouraged a two-pronged policy of public statements by the foreign ministry and covert activities overseen by MİT. Turkey’s support for militant groups involved coordination with regional allies like Qatar and consultation with powerful neighbors like Russia and Iran. Rivalries with states like Saudi Arabia even produced diplomatic crises in which MİT played a role. (The murder of Jamal Kashoggi at the Saudi embassy, for example, was proved to the world using surveillance material collected by MİT.)
As Turkey’s leaders have become more focused on preventing the formation of a sizeable, autonomous Kurdish state in northern Syria, there has been an effort to mend diplomatic fences with regimes like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt—not to mention the Assad regime itself. Given the public enmity between Turkey and these other states, much of the diplomatic reset has been handled by intelligence officials. Throughout a decade of tense relations, for example, Turkey and Israel continued intelligence sharing. As Turkey reengages publicly with these regimes, Fidan is a familiar face.
Under Fidan, MİT has also played a leading role in Turkey’s international campaign against the Gülen movement and PKK. Since 2016 there have been multiple high-profile incidents in which members and associates of the movement have been removed from countries by MİT agents. There have also been murky incidents in countries like France involving assassinations of PKK members. Foreign ministries—and Turkey’s is no exception—tend to avoid such direct association with espionage operations. Consequently, Fidan is something of an outlier; most of his predecessors as foreign minister made a name for themselves in diplomacy, academia, business, or politics before assuming the post. Optics aside, however, Fidan’s appointment suggests that there is no longer a need to pursue a dual-prong diplomatic strategy in the coming years.
CONCLUSIONS: Hakan Fidan’s replacement as head of MIT, İbrahim Kalın, is a well-established member of President Erdoğan’s inner circle. Though he has experience overseeing research institutions like the think tank SETA, Kalın lacks the new foreign minister’s accumulated knowledge of the intelligence agency. In fact, given his academic credentials, long involvement in diplomacy as one of Erdogan’s main advisors, and lack of connection to the controversial covert actions of the past decade, Kalın would seem to be a more traditional candidate for the foreign ministry.
Pro-government media argue that Fidan’s appointment will contribute to more “holistic” governance and “consolidate” Turkey’s “foreign policy orientation,” but it could also lead to turf battles if he attempts to retain his previous powers to the detriment of Kalın. Their decade of experience working together should mitigate against such tension, but only time will tell: neither has previously held such a prominent position in the government, and how they deal with the new challenge remains an open question.
Reuben Silverman is a researcher at the Institute for Turkish Studies, Stockholm University