RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN has upped the ante in his row with the Obama administration, which has heated up since last month’s failed coup in Turkey. The Turkish president now has jumped onto the lap of America’s geopolitical rival, Vladimir Putin.
Erdogan’s meeting Tuesday with his Russian counterpart in a czarist palace outside St. Petersburg has opened what he called – correctly, I believe – “a new page” in Turkish-Russian relations. The two erstwhile foes agreed on a raft of trade, economic and strategic ties between their countries. Some Turks are calling it Erdogan’s “counter-coup” against the United States, which they believe masterminded the botched military coup to overthrow the democratically elected Turkish government.
The St. Petersburg meeting was a 180-degree turn for a man who used to admire America with a passion. The United States was a “model of democracy which Europe should follow,” Erdogan, then disgraced mayor of Istanbul, told me during an interview at his office on August 2, 1998. He was packing to leave the office as he had lost his mayoral job upon his conviction in a Turkish court for reciting a provocative “jihadi poem” at a public gathering.
Putin had fallen out, spitefully, with Erdogan last November when Turkish troops shot down a Russian fighter jet that had strayed into Turkish airspace. That’s all forgotten now. The Turkish guest addressed his Russian host as “dear friend” three times in 10 minutes during their meeting.
Erdogan’s trip to Russia, his first abroad since the failed coup, was meant, partly, to be his tribute to the man he believes had saved his life and government. On the night of July 15 Russian intelligence officers at the Khmeimin airbase in Syria intercepted coded radio signals about preparations for an uprising by military units in Turkey. At Putin’s behest, they called Erdogan at a seaside Turkish resort to alert him about it. A squad of rebel soldiers, they told the Turkish leader, was in flight with orders to “capture or kill” him. Less than 15 minutes after the Erdogan and his family had left the Marmaris resort by an aircraft, 25 renegade Turkish soldiers barged into the hotel where he was staying, looking for him. Erdogan must have thanked his stars for making up with the Russian president a month earlier.
The Turkish president and his associates have accused the CIA of organizing the attempted rebellion in collusion with Erdogan’s arch rival Fethullah Gulen, a multi-billionaire Turkish cleric, living in Pennsylvania. The unorthodox Muslim cleric has built a vast network of schools, businesses and charities in Turkey and dozens of other countries. Critics say the pro-American Gulen has been planning to use his support base in his native Turkey to rule that country as a political and spiritual leader, as a Turkish Ayatollah Khomeini, so to speak. Except that unlike the Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary of Iran, Gulen is a pragmatic, modernizing religious leader.
The belief that the United States engineered the attempted putsch is widely shared by the Turkish public, 69 percent, according to one poll, and by several Turkish media organizations. Some print and electronic news outlets have detailed the alleged American complicity. The Yeni Safak (New Dawn) newspaper, based in Istanbul, has named retired U.S. Army Gen. John F. Campbell as “the man behind” the rebellion. The pro-government paper wrote that Campbell had been recruiting Gulenists in the Turkish armed forces for the coup for eight months. The general, the paper said, had been working with some 80 CIA operatives and distributed $2 billion among Turkish military officers and others through the Nigerian branch of the United Bank of Africa. Yeni Safak obtained most of the information from testimonies of the putschists in Turkish custody.
Then while the uprising was being crushed by angry crowds who had poured into the streets of Ankara and Istanbul at the call of their president, someone spotted a groups of distinguished foreigners behaving suspiciously at a luxury hotel on Princes’ Island outside Istanbul. Henri J. Barkey, a well-known former CIA official and Gulen’s mentor, was watching the insurrection on TV, along with 17 others. Among them, according to one account, was Graham E. Fuller, another former top-ranking CIA officer and long-time Gulen patron. Barkey had instructed the management of the Splendid Palas hotel to set up gadgets for connection to American TV channels.
“I will make a live interview with CNN International,” Barkey had informed them, “and with Voice of America.”
Gulen’s relationship with the CIA began in the 1980s and thickened in 1999 when he defected to the United States to escape capture by the then Turkish government, which had obtained a taped speech by him, instructing his followers to infiltrate government agencies to eventually seize the government. “Move into the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence,” he told them, “until you reach all the power centers.”
In the United States, Fuller was among three CIA-linked Americans who pushed for Gulen’s permanent residency, despite opposition from the State and Homeland Security departments. The other two were George Fidas, a 31-year CIA veteran, and Morton Abramowitz, U.S. ambassador to Turkey during 1989-1991, who is suspected to have been collaborating with CIA projects.
Some of my Turkish interlocutors have been saying that the CIA is the main source of Gulen’s staggering wealth ($25-$50 billion) and his schools and charities in Central Asia. Among those who exposed his CIA connection was the former head of Turkey’s foreign intelligence service, known by its Turkish acronym MIT (the “Turkish CIA”). In 2011 Osman Nuri Gundes published a book, saying Gulen’s Central Asian schools were honeycombed with CIA agents operating as “native-speaking English teachers.”
The CIA reportedly tapped Gulen to use him in a broader U.S. program to get Islam and Muslims to fight communism. The collaboration allegedly continues as part of the CIA’s and neoconservatives’ fight against Islamist movements, one of the many pie-in-the-sky American programs to fight Muslim extremism and terrorism. In any case, they included Erdogan’s AKP in the program.
Unlike Turkey’s Islamic fundamentalist organizations of earlier times, the AKP is a moderate or conservative Muslim party. But American neocons, intelligence agencies and leading media operations continue to consider it a typical Islamist party. They have been as hostile to Erdogan and the AKP as they are to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its imprisoned leader Mohammed Mursi. One can see their animosity toward Erdogan in the writings and rhetoric of Fuller, Barkey, Abramowitz, Michael Rubin, Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes and others. They have been castigating Erdogan’s Islamic “agenda” and “authoritarian” rule and making no secret of their impatience for a regime change in Ankara.
Intriguingly, on March 21 Rubin wrote an article on the American Enterprise Institute website under the headline, “Could there be a coup in Turkey?” He wrote: “The Turkish military would suffer no significant consequence should it imitate [Egyptian coup leader and now president] Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s game plan in Egypt, no one should be surprised if Turkey’s rocky politics soon get rockier.”
Some of these neocons and intelligence operatives have also been defending Gulen against Ankara’s repeated calls, being made for years for his extradition to answer charges in courts for his alleged subversive activities (before the recent coup attempt). The Erdogan government has ratcheted up those calls since the July 15 mutiny. The Obama administration’s persistent refusal to hand over Gulen to Turkey has deepened many Turks’ suspicion about alleged U.S. collusion with Gulen to overthrow the Erdogan government.
President Obama and other American officials have strongly denied allegations of a U.S. role in the Turkish rebellion, and Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Turkey later this month to underscore U.S. support for that country and Erdogan’s democratically elected government. Gulen, too, has flatly denied any complicity in the uprising, although he said some of the Turkish troops who participated in it could be among his supporters.
I don’t expect Turkish-America ties to snap overnight. Relations between the the two old allies have survived Turkey’s invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974, which infuriated President Lyndon Johnson; the Turkish parliament’s rejection of Americans’ plans to use their airbase in southern Turkey during the 2003 Iraq invasion; and other glitches.
But the dissension between Ankara and Washington has been too real, and going on for too long, to ignore. If I were to pick a time when the feuds began, I would say it was Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 U.S.-led war against Iraq to roll back its invasion of Kuwait.
Iraq used to be Turkey’s No. 1 trading partner, and relations between the two Muslim neighbors were cordial. The Turks were opposed to the war, but were “bullied” into it “despite our misgivings about it,” then Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit complained to visitors. As a NATO member, then impoverished and dependent on U.S. military aid and trade, Ankara couldn’t afford to turn down the U.S. demand to join the conflict. The war and the devastating U.S.-sponsored trade embargo on Iraq that followed completely ruptured Turkey’s trade and commercial relations with Iraq. A decade later the Ankara-based newspaper Turkish Daily News reported that Turkish trade with Iraq had dropped to 8 percent of its 1990 volume, costing Turkey between $80 billion and $100 billion.
“We have become America’s serfs,” Faris Estarda, a college graduate and centrist political activist working at Alibaba rug store near Istanbul’s Sultanahmet square, lamented to me during my 1999 trip. “They [the Americans] would start a war with a country to enlarge their empire or take out a government they don’t like, and they would order us pick up the guns and march. Or let them use Incirlik [U.S. military base in southern Turkey]. We can’t say no. Whatever that does to our economy, our relationships, we can’t say no.”
By the time the George W. Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, however, Turkish society and politics had changed dramatically. The democratic upheaval spearheaded by Erdogan and his AKP had ushered in an unprecedented economic boom and buoyed the Turks with a spirit of freedom and dignity they hadn’t felt sine the early 1920s when they defeated the victors of World War l to liberate Turkey from their occupation. Before and during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Turks were denouncing it as “unjust,” “imperialist,” and so forth. Erdogan, still on good terms with the United States, planned to help with the American war plan. But the Turkish parliament overwhelmingly rejected Washington’s request to use its Incirlik airbase for bombing runs in Iraq.
American politicians and foreign policy community were enraged. Many of them blamed the Turkish rebuff on the AKP-led Islamic resurgence. Ever since, relations between the two NATO partners have been deteriorating, mainly because U.S. strategic and policy objectives are clashing with Turkey’s security and economic interests.
During the Iraq war, the United States depended heavily on Kurdish and Shiite militias to do most of the ground fighting against Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Arab forces. The Bush administration didn’t want to use U.S. ground forces on front lines, fearing American casualties would erode U.S. public support behind the war.
To compensate for their support in the war, Americans let Shiites monopolize political power in Baghdad, and what has had more far-reaching consequences, looked the other way as the Shiite government and militias began a massive purge of Sunni Arabs from the military, bureaucracy and security forces. Simultaneously, Shiite militants and public went on ethnically cleansing Sunni Arabs from Shiite-majority towns and cities. That led to the rise of ISIS as the only defender of Sunni Arab victims of the U.S. invasion and Shiite pogrom. The tragedy that befell Sunni Arabs in Iraq spawned anger and anguish among many Sunni Turks across the border.
But it was America’s coddling of the Kurds that took – and is still taking – the heaviest toll on Turkish-U.S. relations. Iraqi Kurds had been fighting for decades, often against American resistance but with Israeli support, to create an independent or autonomous “Kurdistan,” comprising the three Kurdish-majority provinces in northern Iraq. As a price of their help with the U.S. war effort, the United States endorsed their Kurdistan project. Turkey objected to the project strenuously as it feared that the autonomous Kurdish territory in Iraq would become a staging ground for attacks into Turkey by secessionist Turkish Kurds. And it did. Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists have been fighting since 1984 for an autonomous or independent territory in southeastern Turkey, just as their ethnic kin had been in northern Iraq. PKK guerrillas now infiltrated Iraqi Kurdistan and began attacking targets in Turkey from there. The Erdogan government urged Washington over and over to expel the PKK guerrillas from northern Iraq. Americans did little in response, except denounce the PKK and ask the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq to throw them out, which the KRG ignored.
Besides its dependence on the fighting muscle of Iraqi Kurds, the United States also saw Iraqi Kurdistan as a strategic asset. After the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki rejected, under Iranian pressure, U.S. plans to build military bases in southern or central Iraq, the Pentagon and the CIA saw Iraqi Kurdistan as an alternative host to U.S. bases. Last month the Pentagon signed an agreement with the KRG to build five bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, apparently to carry out surveillance and launch military missions in the Middle East.
PKK guerrillas not only were using northern Iraq for their terrorist campaign in Turkey. They also made common cause with fellow Kurds in northern Syria, whom the United States has been using in its fight against ISIS. In the fog of the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish militia in Syria, known by its Kurdish acronym YPG, has staked out an autonomous region of their own, known as Rojava. The YPG has been supportive of the PKK and its secessionist struggle in Turkey. The Kurdish terrorists from Turkey have getting arms, ammunition and other logistical support from their fellow Kurds in Syria.
The Obama administration practically has ignored Ankara’s pleas to expel PKK fighters from Rojava, as it did before in Iraqi Kurdistan. Erdogan’s aides say the Turkish president was first befuddled by Obama’s indifference to his pleas. For months now, he has reportedly been convinced that the availability of Iraqi Kurdish territory for U.S. military bases has downgraded Incirlik’s importance to Washington, and Turkey’s, for that matter. America’s need for the YPG to fight ISIS is cited as the main reason the United States has been indifferent to the Syrian guerrilla group’s support for and collaboration with the PKK.
A widely circulated exchange at a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing was taken by Ankara as evidence that the United States is ready to forget about the Turks to preserve its ties to PYG. In April
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter told the Senate panel that he believed YPG was aiding the PKK in its terrorist activities in Turkey. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who had returned from an investigation of the Turkish-PKK conflict, concurred with Carter’s assessment. The Texas Republican criticized the administration for “arming people inside of Syria who are aligned with a terrorist group” that was destabilizing Turkey. Arming the PKK-aligned Kurdish guerrillas in Syria was “the dumbest idea in the world,” he added.
The State Department immediately got its spokesman to disown the defense secretary’s comments. John Kirby told the press that Carter’s remarks on YPG was “his views and the Pentagon’s views.” The YPG was “not a designated foreign terrorist organization” and hence the United States had no problem arming them, he added. Kirby ignored Carter’s and Graham’s concerns about the threat that the YPG’s support for the PKK has posed to Turkey.
The Obama administration has a decision to make. If it thinks security and strategic relations with Turkey would continue to serve U.S. strategic interests, it has to accommodate two crucial demands of the Turks. First, the Obama administration needs to get its Syrian and Iraqi allies to stop aiding and abetting the PKK. Secondly, it should extradite Gulen to Turkey to answer allegations in Turkish courts about his role in the July 15 armed insurrection and other subversive operations.
An unwillingness to meet the two crucial Turkish demands would signal to the Turks that their assumption is right: Turkish-U.S. security and strategic relations have outlived their usefulness. Who knows, they may have.
- Mustafa Malik covered Turkey as a newspaper correspondent and conducted fieldwork there and in Europe on Ankara’s relations with the European Union. He hosts the blog ‘Muslim Journey’ (http://muslimjourney.com)