Turkey bans YouTube as Syrian incursion plan is exposed

Turkey has tried to stay out of the Syrian war, but a leaked recording shows officials planning a limited action. The government has blocked YouTube to halt the spread of the recording.

Emrah Gurel/AP
A poster of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seen in an election billboard of his Justice and Development Party with a mosque in the background in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, March 27, 2014. A week after banning Twitter in response to damaging leaks, Turkey banned YouTube Thursday.

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Turkey banned YouTube today, a week after banning Twitter in response to damaging leaks connected to the Turkish government. 

But today's ban followed the leaking of an audio recording of top officials discussing a possible military strike in Syria – a security breach that prompted a furious reaction from the government.

Turkey was an early supporter of the Syrian opposition and has had several border skirmishes with the Syrian military – including shooting down a Syrian fighter jet on March 27 that it said had entered its airspace. Today's leaked recording indicates it may be preparing to go on the offensive. 

In the recording, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, National Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan, Deputy Chief of Staff of the military Yasar Guler, and Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu are heard discussing plans for a military strike – possibly including ground troops – against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a jihadist group fighting in Syria. 

In the recording, the four men discuss a possible attack to protect the tomb of Shah Suleiman, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey has considered the tomb, which lies on the bank of the Euphrates river about 20 miles inside Syria, part of its territory since 1921, when France, which controlled Syria at the time, granted Turkey control. It is permanently guarded by a platoon of Turkish commandos.

ISIS, the most hardline among an array of antiregime foreign extremist groups operating in northern Syria, recently took control of the area surrounding the tomb and threatened to seize and destroy it. In a video posted online the militants said they would not tolerate "secular" troops on their soil.

“An operation on [ISIS] has solid ground in international law,” a voice alleged to be that of Mr Sinirlioglu is heard in the recording. “We’re going to portray this as Al Qaeda, there’s no difficulty if it’s a matter regarding Al Qaeda. And if it comes to defending the Suleiman Shah tomb, that’s a matter of protecting our land.”

The leak, apparently recorded in recent days using bugging equipment, provoked fury from Turkish leaders. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it “a vile, cowardly, immoral act.”

Mr. Davutoglu told reporters in the city of Konya, “A cyber attack has been carried out against the Turkish Republic, our state and our valued nation. This is a clear declaration of war.”

Within hours of its upload, Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog had banned all airing of the recording, and a government-appointed telecoms directorate blocked access to YouTube. The move comes just a week after a similar block was imposed on Twitter. Previous leaks have largely exposed issues of corruption within the Erdogan administration and been seen as a way to undermine support for the prime minister. 

One comment, attributed to Davutoglu, has been seized upon by Erdogan’s opponents as evidence he is trying to provoke conflict with Syria to divert attention from domestic woes ahead of local elections on March 30.

“The prime minister said that at the current juncture, this attack [on the Suleiman Shah tomb] must be seen as an opportunity for us,” a voice alleged to belong to Davutoglu says.

Erdogan is facing a series of crises prompted by growing domestic unrest and a stream of corruption allegations against his government.

He has claimed the corruption is trumped up and an effort to drive him from office, and has accused a religious network headed by Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based imam, of being behind them. Mr. Gulen denies the allegations.

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