With Turkey’s help, Russia is conducting direct negotiations with Syrian rebels, the Financial Times reported on Thursday. The FT wrote that one opposition figure, when asked why he thought Russia would seek a deal with the rebels just as Assad appeared to be winning, said Moscow was “essentially saying: ‘Screw you, Americans.’”
Turkey in effect is saying the same thing to Washington. The London-based newspaper explains:
Four opposition members from rebel-held northern Syria told the Financial Times that Turkey has been brokering talks in Ankara with Moscow, whose military intervention on the side of President Bashar al-Assad has helped turn the five-year civil war in the regime’s favor. Russia is now backing regime efforts to recapture the rebels’ last urban stronghold in Syria’s second city of Aleppo.
“The Russians and Turks are talking without the US now. It [Washington] is completely shut out of these talks, and doesn’t even know what’s going on in Ankara,” said one opposition figure, who asked not to be identified.
This puts into context the kerfuffle over General Michael Flynn’s Election Day recommendation that the United States pay more attention to Turkey’s point of view, especially in relation to a home-grown Islamist movement with terrorist overtones. Flynn, the designated National Security Adviser for the Trump administration, was formerly head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the first senior intelligence official to warn of the emergence of ISIS at a time when President Obama dismissed the Islamist movement as “junior varsity.”
In particular, the general cited the Turkish government’s consternation at America’s refusal to extradite the exiled Islamist leader Fetullah Gülen, who fled a Turkish charge of subversion and has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999. Last July 15 a group of Turkish officers apparently loyal to Gülen attempted to overthrow the government of President Tayyip Recep Erdogan. As early as 2008 Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert now at the American Enterprise Institute, warned that Gülen would use millions of followers and billions of dollars in business assets to launch an Islamist coup. That is what Gülen apparently did last July, and Flynn argued that the United States should back Turkey’s elected leader against the coup plotters.
That seemingly uncontroversial suggestion triggered a sewage storm.
Curiously, Michael Rubin came out as one of the fundamentalist leader’s strongest supporters against the Erdogan government, alongside Commentary Magazine’s Noah Rothman. Both attacked Flynn for supporting the Erdogan government against the Gülenist attempted putsch. Rothman added that Flynn was a “dubious choice” for National Security Adviser because his consulting company had had a Turkish corporate client, suggesting that Flynn’s views on Turkey raised a “conflict of interest.”
Commentary Magazine, formerly a conservative voice in public affairs, backed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy against Donald Trump, and the allegation that Flynn’s views were shaped by a single consulting client might be dismissed as ordinary political slander.
There is a darker side to the story. Gülen has prominent American supporters in politics as well as the intelligence community. Some of this appears to have been purchased by the usual means. Gülen’s followers have cultivated close relationships to the Clinton Foundation. Gülen operative Recep Özkan, the former head of the Turkish Cultural Center in New York City, is listed as a Clinton Foundation donor of between US$500,000 and US$1 million in 2015. Özkan was a finance co-chair for Ready For Hillary, which later became ReadyPac, a Clinton-allied political action committee. As Flynn observed in his November 8 op-ed, Bill Clinton called the Turkish fundamentalist leader “my friend” in a video broadly circulated by the Gülen organization.
More interesting is the Gülen lobby in the US intelligence community. Among former US intelligence officials, former CIA station chief in Afghanistan Graham Fuller is Gülen’s most enthusiastic defender. Fuller claims that the Turkish leader is just the sort of moderate Islamist voice that the United States should cultivate. Fuller was the CIA’s point man for the Middle East and South Asia from 1982 to 1986, when the CIA armed Afghan Islamists against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan. In 1986 he became Vice-Chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council.
Using radical Muslims to destabilize Russia is the fixed idea of Fuller’s career. When Afghan jihadis brought down Soviet helicopters during the 1980s with covert help from the CIA, the tactic was effective against the Soviet Union, although it had the unfortunate side-effect of training Islamist terrorists like Osama bin Laden who later would attack the United States. Full disclosure: as a 1980s Cold Warrior I think Fuller and his colleagues did the right thing at the time.
But Fuller remains on a mission to undermine Russia. Indeed, it has become a family matter: after the Boston bombing, investigative reporter Daniel Hopsicker revealed that Fuller’s daughter, Samantha Ankara Fuller, was married in the 1990s to Ruslan Tsarni (born Tsarnaev), the uncle of the brothers who carried out the attack, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Evidently, Fuller supports Fetullah Gülen because the Turkish imam is a danger to Russia. Erdogan also is an Islamist, but a very different kind of Islamist: the Turkish president seeks the restoration of the glory (and perhaps some of the territory) of the Ottoman State, while Gülen is a missionary whose objective is to unite all the world’s Muslims, especially those of Turkish ethnicity, in a great supranational movement. Where Erdogan wants to aggrandize the Turkish state, Gülen hopes to undermine all authority but that of Islam among the hundred million ethnic Turkish Muslims of Central Asia. It is one thing to undermine Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, and another to contribute to internal instability in Russia long after the fall of the Soviet Union. America has reason to wish to contain Russian ambitions in a number of areas, but this kind of game risks a very dangerous confrontation.
Russia hates and fears Gülen. His organization built secondary schools in ethnic Turkish areas in Russia, as part of a long-term program to cultivate an Islamist elite caste. Russia initially welcomed the schools but expelled the Gülenists during the late 1990s. The former Soviet states of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan did so during the 2000s. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus praised Russia’s crackdown in a November 14 interview with the Russian website Sputnik. Said Kurtlmus, “Russia is in a better position as it was able to see the danger of the organization from the very beginning and thwart its activities on the Russian territory. We will seek to improve our cooperation with the Russian side on fighting [the Gülen organization] in the future.”
Turkey thinks the United States was behind the July 15 coup, as the New York Times reported on August 2. Otherwise, the Turks ask, why would the US continue to shelter the principal coup plotter? It is unclear what the Obama administration was doing. I think it unlikely that the Obama White House actually promoted the coup. Under Susan Rice, the National Security Council has become something of a free-for-all. It is more likely that the Gülenists acted on their own, and that some voices in the US intelligence community expressed sympathy for them after the fact.
More can be explained by incompetence than conspiracy. But the suggestion of American backing for Gülen persuaded both Ankara and Moscow that the US was playing (or at least considering) a dangerous game of destabilization. The outpouring of opprobrium against Flynn after he blew the whistle on Gülen suggests that some part of the administration and the intelligence community was caught with its pants down after the July 16 coup, and used the gullible Rothman of Commentary Magazine to attack Flynn.
The final result of the Obama administration’s blundering may be the exit of Turkey from the Western alliance. Ankara is now threatening to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Russo-Chinese umbrella group that may become a counterweight to NATO. China last month expressed sympathy for a Turkish move to the East. Turkey meanwhile is negotiating to acquire Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system, a slap in the face to NATO.
That is why Turkish-sponsored direct negotiations between Russia and the Syrian rebels is such an ominous development. It shows how much influence the United States has lost in the region. Flynn has proposed to undo the damage and restore American influence. The fact that his suggestions were controversial in the first place shows how much work is required to reconstruct American intelligence and diplomacy.