Erdoğan to visit Russia as Gülen problem with US grows

Erdoğan to visit Russia as Gülen problem with US grows

It was only a month ago, a day after Turkey’s normalization deal with Israel was announced on June 26, that it was announced that a normalization process with Russia had started.

President Tayyip Erdoğan had written a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 24, expressing his sorrow about the downing of a Russian jet for violating the Syria-Turkey border on Nov. 24, 2015, which triggered a major diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

Only a few weeks after that letter, a military coup attempt took place in Turkey on the night of July 15, led not by the military in its chain of command but rather by a junta within the military. Troops loyal to the junta opened fire on civilians resisting them, tried to kidnap or kill the president, kidnapped the chief of general staff and other top brass, and bombed the parliament building, police and intelligence headquarters. The coup attempt was defeated because Turkish politics, society and the main bulk of the state apparatus stood against them.

President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government were quick to denounce the coup plotters as a covert network within the state loyal to Fethullah Gülen, the Islamic ideologue living in the U.S. and former ally of Erdoğan turned archenemy after 2012-13.

The government immediately asked the U.S. administration to extradite Gülen to Turkey, to be tried as the leader of a terrorist organization – referred to as the “Fethullahist Terror Organization” (FETÖ) - aiming to overthrow the government by force. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said it would be possible if Turkey presented clear evidence to the U.S. justice system showing Gülen’s link with terrorist activity or the coup attempt. Erdoğan had a phone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama on July 19, during which Obama condemned the coup attempt, (four days after it occurred), and offered assistance if needed. The only assistance that Erdoğan needed was the extradition of Gülen to Turkey.  

The next day, Turkey declared a state of emergency and Erdoğan expressed dismay that the elected government in Turkey, which succeeded in suppressing a military coup attempt with the help of its people and parliament, could not find the support it deserved from its friends in the West.
His remarks opening the way to debates on the possible reintroduction of capital punishment, in answer to the chants of supportive crowds, was the focus of much discussion especially in Europe. However, Turkish EU Minister Ömer Çelik said he was disappointed that no EU official or politician had visited Turkey in solidarity after the coup. He was right, with the exception of U.K. Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Alan Duncan, who on July 21 condemned the coup attempt, in statements welcomed by Yıldırım and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

But Ankara’s real problem is with its major military ally, the U.S. That problem is over Gülen. 

Following a July 20 article written by former CIA executive Graham Fuller praising Gülen as the “future face of Islam” and expressing the conviction that he could not get involved in such plots as a man of peace, U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said on July 21 that there was “no evidence” showing any involvement of Gülen in the coup plot. 

As Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ prepares to lead a delegation to Washington for talks over Gülen’s extradition, the New York Times printed an article by Gülen on July 26, one day after publishing a column by Erdoğan’s spokesman, İbrahim Kalın. Kalın said the U.S. should return Gülen to Turkey, which Gülen described as “blackmail” by Erdoğan, describing the president as an “increasingly authoritarian” ruler. More important than that, Gülen stressed that his “Hizmet” movement, (meaning “service” in Turkish), shares and serves Western ideals as a moderate face of Islam.

Gülen’s letter makes it difficult for the U.S. to defend him, as he dragged the issue from its legal grounds, where U.S. officials have been trying to keep it, to political grounds. From now on, protecting Gülen might be perceived as politically motivated, in an atmosphere where, for example, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli asked in parliament for clarification of “rumors” that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was behind the coup. The leader of the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, said on July 26 while visiting the bombed HQ of the police special operations, that the U.S. must give Gülen back to Turkey for trials. Kılıçdaroğlu said that if Gülen wanted to clear his name, he should voluntarily come to Turkey for a trial.

Meanwhile, it was announced on July 26 that Erdoğan would go to St. Petersburg to meet with Putin on Aug. 9 for his first visit to Russia since the bilateral crisis erupted between the two countries last November, and also as his first visit abroad since the coup attempt.

The question lingers in the air about whether Russia, whose intelligence services have been accused by the Democratic Party in the U.S. of intercepting their electronic communications, would provide any material to Erdoğan linking Gülen to the coup plotters. It certainly seems there is a lot of exchange of information going on nowadays, as was revealed by Çavuşoğlu, who said that Turkey has warned a number of countries, including the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, about a possible coup plot by Gülenists who infiltrated the state apparatus there through their school network. Moscow has already closed Gülen’s school network in Russia, accusing it of cooperating with the CIA.