By Amberin Zaman
ISTANBUL (Al-Monitor) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems omnipotent, but few doubt that he is grooming Berat Albayrak as his successor. Foreign officials have described Albayrak to Al-Monitor as “Turkey’s most powerful man after Erdogan.” Some go as far as to suggest that he is already de facto running the country. Those who want to glean more about Albayrak, Turkey’s energy minister and Erdogan’s son-in-law, can now sift through more than 57,000 emails supposedly associated with his personal email account that WikiLeaks released December 6.
The missives, spanning the years 2000 to 2016, cast a rare light on Erdogan and his inner circle and their interactions with business, the government and the media. Some of the juiciest tidbits in “Berat’s box” are found in exchanges between Albayrak and his brother Serhat, who runs the pro-government Turkvuaz Medya conglomerate and is a board member of Calik Holding, a giant Turkish company with interests in energy, construction and telecoms, among other things.
In the emails, Serhat forwards his conversations with Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, US President-elect Donald Trump’s business partner in Turkey. Yalcindag is the son-in-law of the Turkish media mogul Aydin Dogan and has close relations with Albayrak. He arranged the November 9 telephone conversation between Trump and Erdogan after Trump’s election victory.
The emails reveal that Yalcindag used his position to censor Dogan-affiliated journalists critical of the president. Yalcindag was forced to step down as CEO of Dogan Publishing after Albayrak’s emails were first leaked in September by RedHack, a Turkish hacktivist group. RedHack made good on its threat to make them public after the government spurned its demands to release several left-wing activists from detention.
The government swiftly blocked access to the emails, but not before some of the more controversial content hit social media, notably information purportedly linking Albayrak to the Turkish energy company Powertrans, with which Albayrak denies any association. The correspondence, if authentic, suggests that Albayrak had a say over Powertrans affairs. This, in turn, raises conflict of interest issues because of his personal connection to Erdogan.
Powertrans, which was granted a controversial monopoly to transport crude from Iraqi Kurdistan, has been accused of mixing in oil produced in neighboring Syria by the Islamic State. The oil from IS was allegedly trucked to Iraqi Kurdistan and added to local shipments being transported by Powertrans to Turkey. Energy sources in Iraqi Kurdistan who spoke to Al-Monitor on strict condition of anonymity, however, said that if any oil were being trucked from eastern Syria and mixed in, it would be from wells operated by the Syrian Kurds, not IS. Besides, much of Powertrans’ trucking business in Iraqi Kurdistan was farmed out to subcontractors. The claims against Powertrans have yet to be backed by firm evidence of any kind.
Of course, Turkey’s loose monitoring of its 565-mile (909-kilometer) border with Syria did allow IS to move fighters, arms and oil through it for some time. Indeed, in September 2014, Al-Monitor columnist Fehim Tastekin documented the existence of an illicit pipeline carrying oil from Syria to Turkey. Turkish authorities have since destroyed the network.
Energy sales have served as a critical source of financing for IS’ terrorist and other activities. The trade took a big hit when Abu Sayyaf, the group’s “emir for oil and gas,” was killed by US special operations forces in a daring raid on his headquarters in eastern Syria in May 2015. The tip-off about his whereabouts came from a teenage Yazidi girl he had enslaved but who managed to flee and make her way to Iraqi Kurdistan, where she was picked up by US special forces.
The Delta Force operation gave the United States access to a treasure trove of information about IS’ financial network. A senior Western official contacted soon after told Al-Monitor that although IS used some Turkish middlemen for its oil and other businesses, there was no proof that the Turkish government was either implicated or involved in any way.