Turkey – U.S. Relations to Collapse over Fethullah Gülen?

FILE PHOTO -  Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan listens as U.S. President Obama addresses a joint news conference at the White House in Washington

FILE PHOTO – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) listens as U.S. President Barack Obama (R) addresses a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden in Washington, May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo – RTSEXJC

The U.S. Vice President Joe Biden who is set to visit Turkey very soon will find an intense anti-Gülen and a little anti-American environment in Turkey, hopefully he will understand why.

The country is still staggered by the horror unleashed by the coup plotters that poised to suspend rule of law and democracy, ran over people with tanks, opened fire on civilians from gunships, bombarded the parliament with F-16s and tried to assassinate the country’s president… It is an unprecedented national trauma whose effects will shape Turkey’s future internal and, to some extent, external politics. The country has been politically fractured in the recent years. Yet the coup attempt created an unusual sense of unity among all political parties, civil society and beyond. Their eyes turned to Fethullah Gülen and his movement, the prime suspects of the bloody attempt. If the U.S. fails to read the post-coup attempt mood in Turkey, it will not risk losing only the Turkish government but also the Turkish public.

Conspiracy Theories

For some, USA is also involved in the coup attempt. The pro-government media in Turkey offers a wide range of conspiracy theories. An official joined: The country’s Labor Minister Süleyman Soylu on HaberTurk TV openly accused USA of being responsible for not only the recent coup attempt but also “all the calamities” like 1960 coup, Gezi Park protests and 2013 corruption scandal… Of course, this is as crazy as claiming, like some in the West do, that the coup attempt was just a ploy by Erdoğan to grab more power.

Soylu is hardly the first Turkish minister to lose his temper and make such crazy statements. The Turkish people’s thought is somewhat different: A poll suggests that 64.4% of the respondents blame Fethullah Gülen for the coup attempt, only 3.8% think it was USA. But undoubtedly, anti-American sentiments are likely to rise, should the U.S. refuse to extradite Gülen. After articles like that of Graham Fuller describing Gülen as a cuddly Islamic monk with nothing but endless love for humanity and the humble face of “moderate Islam” in the world, it is actually surprising that only 3.8% of the usually conspiracy-minded Turks see an American hand in this.

They may not believe the U.S. was directly behind the putsch attempt but many do believe that it is behind Fethullah Gülen who has been living in the U.S. since 1999. It is true that conspiracy theories are hardly uncommon in Turkey and blaming Americans for just about anything is deemed normal. Those who blame the U.S. do it partly because they regard it as almost an omnipotent force. “A country with the most advanced information gathering technologies and the history’s most effective intelligence apparatus must have known about the coup attempt much before it happened”, they think. And since the U.S. did not warn Turkish authorities, they conclude that there is an American hand in this – and also in pretty much everything else. But the suspicions about Gülen do have grounds. Dani Rodrik, who exposed many illegal practices of Gülenists within the state like cooking evidence, illegal wiretapping etc., listed some of these reasons. For him, “it is not farfetched to think that there are some groups in the [U.S.] administration – perhaps in the intelligence branches – who have been protecting Gulen because they think he is useful to U.S. foreign policy interests”.

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Fethullah Gülen (Source: Ensonhaber).

The Case against Gülen

There are more than just opinions against Gülen. During the uprising, a police officer suspended for being a Gülen loyalist in 2014, was found in a rebel tank wearing military uniform. The coup attempt occurred just before upcoming anti-Gülenist purges through Supreme Military Council and an ongoing investigation in İzmir. Having discovered the coming sweep, the putschists rushed the coup attempt which, luckily, reduced the chance of success. Levent Türkkan, the Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar’s aide-de-camp, confessed to be an obedient Gülenist and that he was tasked with neutralizing Akar during the uprising. He says in his testimony he was given questions of military high school entrance exam by his Gülenist superiors in 1989. The Gülenist influence in education is well-known but Türkkan’s testimony defies the common belief that Gülenist infiltration in the military is a relatively late phenomenon. (By the way Gülen, through more than 130 charter schools, is educating American kids, as well.)  It should be noted that the detainees’ statements should be treated with caution since in their recent pictures they are looking pretty roughed up, which raises questions about the circumstances of their detainment. Hulusi Akar says in his testimony that Hakan Evrim, commander of the Akıncı Air Base where the putschists held anti-coup generals as captives and coordinated their aerial operations, told him “something like ‘If you wish, we could get you in touch with our opinion leader Fethullah Gülen’.” Akar says he angrily rejected the offer. Evrim, however, denies that he has any ties to Gülen or his movement, claiming that he, too, was a captive of the putschists.

Americans, on the other hand, avoid speaking in certain terms but it seems that also for them, the Gülenist involvement in the coup attempt is beyond doubt. Wikileaks cables reveal that U.S. diplomats stationed in Turkey repeatedly warned their government about the Gülen Movement. In an interview to CNNTurk after the attempted putsch, John Bass, the U.S. Ambassador in Ankara, told “Now, clearly as a resident here in Turkey, Friday night’s actions, and the apparent involvement of a large number of his [Gülen] supporters, is a compelling and grave threat to the security of this country…”  Bass’ predecessor James Jeffrey said “most indications… point to the Gülenist movement”.

Gulen Compound

Fethullah Gülen’s Compound in Pennsylvania (Source: Business Insider).

It is not very likely that solid written evidence directly incriminating Fethullah Gülen will ever be found. For any kind of action, his verbal blessing to his followers would be more than enough. Even in his private sermons he uses a very ambiguous language full of metaphors and similes. Gülen Movement has control over many schools, NGOs, businesses etc. but the movement itself does not have an institutional identity and, therefore, a legal personality. Its members do not have something like Gülen Club IDs proving that they are Gülenists. Membership does not require registry but only obedience and commitment to leader. Hence, it will not be easy to expose them for what they are. Dealing with them may prove especially hard in the U.S., considering the presence of a well-oiled Gülenist PR machine there.

The unprecedented attempt that took lives of more than 260 people created an unprecedented anti-coup and anti-Gülen environment in Turkey. The Turkish side sees Gülen’s deportation primarily as a political issue rather than a legal one. Thus, any legal bumps in the way of his expulsion will be regarded by Turks as political obstacles set by Americans to protect him. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said “Our relations will be affected if the U.S. rejects to give us him (Gülen). We do not want to come to that point.” PM Binali Yıldırım was considerably less diplomatic: “They (Americans) told us ‘present evidence’… We will lay before them more evidence than they want … While you did not seek evidence for Bin Laden, why are you insistently demanding it for FETÖ despite the incident is very clear and all the evidence is already there? I am asking you. Do not protect this murderer, this traitor, this arch-terrorist any longer! There is no advantage in it for you.” Though, strangely, despite these seemingly passionate remarks, the Turkish government has not yet made an official request for Gülen’s extradition.

Hopefully, Americans are reading Turkey correctly. The way the U.S. media underemphasizes horrific the coup attempt and how its initiators that took the country’s high command captive and killed their own people on the streets of the capital, and prefers to focus almost solely on Erdoğan is utterly discouraging.

According to PEW polls, Turks are generally suspicious of foreigners and do not see USA, or any other country, favorably. But given the current circumstances, it is safe to suggest that the coming days have the potential to create a special dislike for the U.S. which could be poisonous for future cooperation. With ISIS continuing to be threat, Middle East being even more unstable than before, and Russian expansionism making a push, Turkish-American relations still hold their high value. Nobody should think to sacrifice them for someone like Fethullah Gülen.

 

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