The Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s sensational demand on Saturday to US President Barack Obama to extradite the Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen living in exile in Pennsylvania does not come as surprise. It had to happen sooner or later.
But then, Erdogan has chosen to speak publicly on such a highly sensitive issue instead of using the confidential channels of communication.
Any long-time observer of Erdogan and his political personality can make out that he is taunting Obama within the week of the NATO summit in Warsaw. These are excerpts from Erdogan’s public remarks in Istanbul on Saturday:
- Please meet our request (on Gulen’s extradition) if we (Turkey and US) are strategic partners. I asked you (Obama) previously either to deport him or surrender him to Turkey. I told you that he is considering the coup d’etat, but you didn’t listen.
The crowd listening to Erdogan began chanting, “Death to Fetullah.”
To be sure, Erdogan knows how to work up the crowd. And he knows that if the mood turns ugly in Turkish-American relations, his strength lies in his massive support base.
This is becoming very personal, too. Erdogan mentioned Obama by name. It is an open secret that the chemistry between the two statesmen has been poor.
Erdogan will not forgive the Obama administration for leading him up the garden path on Syria, convincing him that Washington was leaving no stone unturned to overthrow the Assad regime. The then CIA Director David Petraeus visited Turkey more than once to urge Erdogan to kickstart the intervention in Syria.
Obama himself lauded Turkey as a role model for the Muslim Middle East, pandering to Erdogan’s notions of his own tryst with destiny in the erstwhile territories of the Ottoman Empire.
Thus, Erdogan’s stunning disclosure on Saturday that he had shared with Obama the intelligence on a likely coup attempt by Gulen’s followers and that the US president sat on it can only mean that the Turkish leader suspects Washington’s intentions toward him.
Erdogan would know there isn’t a ghost of a chance that the US will extradite Gulen. No country’s intelligence would simply surrender such a “strategic asset.” Gulen’s version of political Islam had seamless uses for the US regional strategies in many parts of the world, especially in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, which constitute Russia’s “soft underbelly.”
Suffice it to say, Erdogan is preparing for a period of deep chill in Turkish-American relations. These are early days, but the move to cut off power supply to the Incirlik base where the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is based, may convey some hidden meaning.
Most certainly, the US forces have installed top-notch electronic systems in Incirlik to eavesdrop on communication. The Turkish intelligence would be wondering whether the US privy to the coup. This is one thing.
The timing of the coup is extremely significant. It comes after the setback to the US plans to push for a permanent NATO presence in the Black Sea, challenging Russia’s historical pre-eminence in those waters, aimed at encircling the Russian naval fleet in Sevastopol and threatening Crimea.
The Montreaux Convention (1936) forbids permanent naval presence in the region by non-Black Sea countries and gives Turkey control over the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles Straits. Plainly put, without Turkey’s cooperation, the US stratagem to encircle Russia in the Black Sea (and Mediterranean) becomes a non-starter.
Erdogan’s decision to render an apology for the shooting down of a Russian jet last November also took everyone by surprise, including Washington. The acceleration of the Turkish-Russian normalization would have unnerved Washington.
It heralded that in one sweep, the co-relation of forces in the West’s standoff with Russia might change once the Turkish-Russian rapprochement gathered pace. Erdogan and Putin are likely to meet in a near future, too.
It cannot at all be ruled out that the Russian intelligence tipped off the Turkish counterparts on the likelihood of a coup. The Russian intelligence has traditionally kept a strong presence in Turkey.
Against the backdrop of the intervention in Syria, Russia also must be maintaining highly sophisticated electronic communication gear airbase in the Hmeimim airbase.
What must be noted is that the Russian reportage of the coup in Turkey was unabashedly ‘pro-Erdogan’. In a manner of speaking, Russia has become a stakeholder in Erdogan’s continuance in power – although Turkey is a NATO power.
Most certainly, the coup itself appears to have been hastily assembled, and was predicated on hopes, perhaps, that it would draw large-scale support from within the army. It probably hoped to capitalize on the officers with ‘pro-Islamist’ leanings who were inducted into the officer corps of the army by Erdogan following the great purge of ‘Kemalists’ during the recent years.
Arguably, Erdogan was aware that the newly-inducted military cadres also included Gulen’s followers, and a further purge would become necessary at some point. Curiously, Erdogan was due to take the crucial annual meeting of the Military Council in Ankara next month to decide on the promotion and transfers of top ranking officers.
Here we run into a paradox.
The fact of the matter is that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) also has elements, including at the leadership level, who empathize with Gulen and his version of political Islam.
Simply put, if the coup had succeeded, it would have essentially led to a ‘Gulenist’ takeover of the AKP itself.
The bottom line is that even if the coup had succeeded, it wouldn’t have made the least difference to Turkey’s historic lurch toward political Islam.
Again, what needs to be factored in is that Gulen has enjoyed cordial equations with Saudi Arabia. “Green money” has played a big part in the AKP’s ascendancy. The so-called “Anatolian tigers” – business elites from Anatolian region – who financed the AKP have been major beneficiaries of “green money.”
Of course, Saudis have kept their dealings with Gulen under the wraps, and it remains to be seen what impact the failed coup attempt would have on Erdogan’s uneasy equations with the Saudi regime.
The Saudis have been watching with unease the nascent signs of shift in Erdogan’s interventionist policies in Syria. (By the way, Iran’s Fars news agency, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, reported Saturday that Turkish intelligence officers deployed in Aleppo in Syria have begun evacuating on instructions from Ankara, signalling disengagement from the rebel groups fighting the government forces in that region.)
Thus, it is not without significance that the Iranian statements on the coup attempt in Turkey have been strongly supportive of Erdogan. Without doubt, one can hear a sigh of relief in the corridors of power in Tehran.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, made a hugely meaningful remark on Saturday that both Tehran’s vehement condemnation of the coup attempt in Turkey and the role that Iran itself plays in Syria fundamentally stem from the same considerations.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.
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