Erdogan’s shadow army: The influence of SADAT, Turkey's private defense group

Turkey’s SADAT defense group is heavily involved in Ankara’s training of Syrian Sunni rebels for the fight against Assad.

Turkish soldiers deployed last month in the center of Afrin, a Syrian town bordering on Turkey (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Turkish soldiers deployed last month in the center of Afrin, a Syrian town bordering on Turkey
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
In the collapsed and fragmented space that constitutes much of today’s Middle East, the key to success increasingly lies in the ability to combine political strategy with military muscle, under a single banner and in a single structure.
Examples abound.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is today the foremost practitioner of political and revolutionary warfare in the region. Its skills in this regard are the primary reason for the situation in which Iran today controls Lebanon and has a dominant hand in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Turkey is the latest country to enter this crucial, if shadowy, field.
The SADAT Defense Consultancy, founded in 2012 by former Brig- Gen. Adnan Tanriverdi, is Ankara’s instrument in this area. Its activities are testimony both to the changing nature of the Turkish state, and to the process by which power and influence are currently built and held in the Middle East.
To understand the role that SADAT is set to play, let’s first take a look at the advantages that similar structures afford the states that utilize them.
The IRGC, unlike the Iranian conventional armed forces, or “Artesh,” is commanded by people absolutely loyal not to the state, but to the governing regime and its goals.
These are “political soldiers,” notably available for mobilization both in defense of the regime at home, as well as in the furtherance of its goals abroad.
The proxy party-militia structures which the IRGC excels at creating and controlling in turn have the advantage of informality, and deniability, when compared with conventional forces. They permit Tehran to support and engage in paramilitary and terrorist activity globally – attacks on Jewish civilians in Burgas and Buenos Aires, assassination of Kurdish politicians in Vienna and Berlin, etc. – while continuing to take its place in the halls of diplomacy and trade as a supposedly conventional member of the international community.
The IRGC remains the exemplar for this type of warfare. Other countries have been slower to develop structures able to perform a similar function. But the gaps are closing.
The Russians, predictably, have entered the game over the last half-decade. Irregular “volunteers” were the Kremlin’s preferred tool for sparking the ferment in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces of eastern Ukraine which led to the Russian conquest of these areas in 2014. Military contractors connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner company have played a crucial role as auxiliaries and deniable ground cannon fodder for the Russians in Syria.
Many of the individuals engaged with this company are themselves veterans of the fight in Ukraine.
SO, TO SADAT: According to its website, the company’s mission is to “establish a defensive collaboration and defensive industrial cooperation among Islamic countries to help [the] Islamic world take the place where it merits among superpowers by providing consultancy and training services.”
The Turkish version of the website sounds a little less like a run-of-the-mill private military contracting firm. Western states are described as “imperialist,” “crusader” countries.
Tanriverdi is an artillery officer who later specialized in asymmetric warfare. A former head of the Home Front Command in Northern Cyprus, he was expelled from the army because of his Islamist convictions in 1997. His ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the circles of the ruling AKP are of long standing.
A recent analysis by longtime Turkey-watcher Michael Rubin for the American Enterprise Institute noted eyewitness reports of armed SADAT personnel involved in the suppression of the coup attempt of July 2016. The failed coup heralded the beginning of a comprehensive attempt by the Turkish president to remake the Turkish Armed Forces along lines more amenable to himself.
As part of this process, hundreds of officers dismissed for Islamist leanings are being reinstated, and Tanriverdi was himself appointed chief military adviser to the president in late 2016.
SADAT has been heavily involved in Turkey’s training of Syrian Sunni Arab rebels for the fight against Assad. The company established a number of facilities in the Marmara region for this purpose at the beginning of the Syrian war. According to a 2012 report in the oppositionist Aydinlik newspaper, at least one of these training facilities was located at a Turkish military base in the Golcuk district of Kocaeli, formerly maintained as a training center by the Turkish Navy.
The Syrian rebellion in northern Syria is today able to survive only because of Turkey’s support. SADAT has played a key role in the development and facilitation of this relationship.
Tanriverdi does not deny SADAT’s contacts with the Free Syrian Army, but in a July 2016 article in Cumhurriyet he was quoted as noting that both the Turkish state and the US supported the Syrian opposition, and that SADAT’s contacts were carried out with the knowledge of the Turkish authorities.
Of course, the term “Free Syrian Army” is a wide one, and considerable evidence exists to suggest that elements of the Turkish state were directly offering assistance to the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra at certain stages during the war in Syria.
With crucial elections approaching in 2019, there are widespread fears in opposition circles that the government is training militias for use to intimidate government opponents.
One opposition politician, Meral Aksener, founder and leader of the nationalist Good Party, told a leftist newspaper that SADAT was behind these training camps. The company denied the allegations.
Unsurprisingly, there is an Israel angle to SADAT’s activities.
In an article quoted by MEMRI, Tanriverdi described Israel as “the outpost of the new crusade and a dagger in the heart of Islam.” In the article, Tanriverdi envisions the equipping and training of a Palestinian conventional army which would, in partnership with a united army of Islam, defeat and destroy Israel.
Turkish academic Cemil Tekeli was arrested in January by Israeli authorities and deported from the West Bank because of suspicions that he was assisting Hamas in money-laundering.
Tekeli is a close associate of Tanriverdi, according to a report in Makor Rishon, which published a picture of the two together.
So – engagement in assisting proxies abroad, providing muscle for a repressive political strategy at home and planning war with Israel. Erdogan is engaged, according to many, in a historic project of dismantling the republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk nearly 100 years ago and replacing it with a new, Islamic entity. This new entity will require new institutions.
The shadow warriors of SADAT appear to be in the process of establishing one of the most notable of these.
The writer is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.