Is Gülen indispensable in Turkey-US relations?
A day before the remarks of two top U.S. security officials hit the wires on July 29, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on CNN Türk that it would be wrong to antagonize the relations between Turkey and the United States because of Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish Islamist preacher living in Pennsylvania has been the reason for the latest crisis between the two NATO allies, which have cooperated a lot on many conflict points from Ukraine to Syria and Kosovo to Afghanistan. Turkey opened its strategic İncirlik Air Base for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and reportedly allowed U.S. intelligence to carry out operations from its soil against terrorist groups in the Syrian civil war.
It was again Çavuşoğlu who reacted furiously to the remarks made by James Clapper, the U.S. national intelligence director (NID), and Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the Central Command (CENTCOM), who is in charge of the fight against ISIL and al-Qaeda, not only in Syria and Iraq but also in Afghanistan. Clapper had already angered Ankara for an earlier remark when he said they had no evidence that Gülen had involvement in the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey as the Turkish government had claimed, just five days after the coup attempt had taken place.
On July 28 (July 29 in Turkey because of the time difference) it was first Votel who said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado that “a number of the U.S. military’s closest allies in the Turkish military have been placed in jail following the coup attempt.” He was also “concerned about what the impact is on those relationships as we continue.”
Before quoting Clapper who echoed Votel a few hours later, there is a need to understand what Votel represents to the Turkish government. On May 18 (19 in Turkey) the U.S. President Barack Obama called Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and talked about a massive operation against ISIL. On May 19, Votel carried out meetings with the Iraqi government in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdish officials in Arbil. The next day, Votel flew to Syria, to a region along the Turkish border and held by Syrian Kurdish fighters, to talk to them on the fight against ISIL. That disturbed Ankara greatly. The fighters belonged to People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an armed campaign against Turkey for decades. It is also recognized by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. Erdoğan asked Obama to stop cooperating with the PYD, which was no different than the PKK or ISIL as far as the government is concerned. But CENTCOM needed them since Obama did not want to send GI Joes to Syria and needed people to fight for them on the ground.
So when Votel speaks, Ankara recalls the PYD/PKK problem in between. And the same Votel was now complaining that Turkey had arrested some of his “closest allies” because they were involved in an attempt to overthrow the elected government of Turkey. And Clapper was endorsing Votel by saying that the failed coup and the “government’s backlash” had “affected all segments of the national security apparatus in Turkey,” meaning, “Many of our interlocutors have been purged or arrested. This is going to set things back and make things more difficult” in terms of the U.S.’ Middle East targets.
While asking the U.S. administration to send Gülen back to Turkey to be tried as a “leader of a terrorist organization conspiring on a coup,” the Turkish government connects the dots in a way to include two more details. One of them is an article by Graham Fuller, a former CIA executive, and one of the architects of using political Islam for U.S. interests (who also helped Gülen get a Green Card) where he said he was almost sure that Gülen had no relation whatsoever with the coup attempt and he was the “future face of Islam” in the world. The other one is an article by Gülen in the New York Times where he highlighted that he has been serving the interests of the West for years and that the U.S. should not bow to the “blackmail” of the Turkish government. So while the U.S. State Department and Department of Justice were trying to defy Turkish demands on legal grounds, Gülen and the intelligence apparatus were dragging the issue on political grounds.
To sum it up in the eyes of Ankara, there was a coup attempt where hundreds of people were killed by the members of a junta who attempted to kill an ally country’s elected president, bomb the parliament during a session, kidnapped the top commanders, attacked intelligence and police facilities, raided media centers – all while the concern of the top military person in this part of the world was that his closest allies were put in jail, and yes, for taking part in the coup attempt. The İncirlik base was closed for a couple of days by the Turkish government as Votel complained, because the base commander was also a member of the junta that allowed a tanker plane to refuel F-16s seized by the rebel officers in their missions to bomb the parliament and the presidential compound; he asked for asylum from the U.S. but was reportedly rejected.
Erdoğan was infuriated while addressing policemen in the police special forces HQ, which was also attacked by rebel F-16s, a few hours after Çavuşoğlu. “You should have thanked and congratulated us for defying a coup; instead you are siding with the plotters. Shame on you,” he slammed the generals.
Will the Gülen problem destroy Turkish-U.S. strategic relations? That is the question. And the answer is and should be a “no.” There is an obvious power vacuum in Washington DC now as the country is heading for the presidential elections and there is a clear competition and arm wrestling between the government agencies and lobbies, not only on the Gülen issue but on other issues regarding other parts of the world.
Turkish-American relations are likely to overcome this problem; there are a bunch of interests in common, but it seems things will still be painful.