Turkey: The Erdogan-Gulen Fight, Now Playing in Washington
Ever since Turkish Airlines introduced a few years back direct flights from Washington's Dulles Airport to Istanbul, the American capital and Turkey and have somehow seemed less far apart. Now, as the ongoing battle between Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the movement of Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen heats up, with both sides trying to pull Washington into the scrum, the two places seem even more closely linked, although in a way that could ultimately drive a wedge between Turkey and the US.
With Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan facing a mounting corruption scandal and the constant leaking of recordings of incriminating personal phone calls, which the PM and his supporters say are being orchestrated by the Gulen movement, Erdogan is striking back, accusing the movement and its leader -- who currently lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania -- of working to destabilize Turkey.
In a television interview last week, Erdogan said that he recently spoke to President Barack Obama on the phone and delivered that message to him. “The person who is responsible for the unrest in Turkey lives in your country, in Pennsylvania. I told him this clearly,” Erdogan said during the interview. “I said, ‘I expect what’s necessary (to be done).’ You have to take the necessary stance if someone threatens my country’s security.” According to Erdogan, Obama told him: "We got the message."
Erdogan and Obama had indeed spoken on the phone in late February, but the White House was quick to correct the record on what was -- and wasn't -- said. Reported the McClatchy Washington bureau on March 7:
The White House said Friday that “the response attributed to President Obama with regard to Mr. Gulen is not accurate.”
The White House also said Obama had noted “the importance of sound policies rooted in the rule of law” as well as the importance of “mutually respectful relations between our two countries.”
But this was not the first time Erdogan dragged the US into Turkey's current domestic trouble -- or the first time Washington had to warn him not to do that. When the corruption scandal first erupted this past December, several pro-AKP media outlets accused US ambassador Francis Ricciardone of somehow being involved in an effort to take Erdogan and his party down. Following up on those accusations, Erdogan said at a rally in the Black Sea town of Samsun: “Ambassadors are engaging in some provocative actions. I am calling on them: Do your job. We are not obliged to keep you in our country." State Department officials, in response, called the accusations "deeply disturbing" and reminded Ankara about the need "to separate our vitally important relationship from partisan political efforts.”
The Gulen movement, finding itself in an ever escalating battle, has also brought Washington into the picture. A good example is a recent article from Today's Zaman, the Gulen-affiliated newspaper, which ran with this headline: "Erdogan's Claims About Gulen Stun US Ambassador Ricciardone." Reported from a farewell party at the house of the Turkish ambassador to Washington on the night of the Erdogan TV interview in which the PM talked about his conversation with Obama, the story didn't feature any actual comment about being stunned by Ricciardone, who declined to be quoted for the piece (wisely, considering the Turkish press's fondness for twisting his words). Instead, the article referred to a "stunned" look in the ambassador's eyes upon hearing about what Erdogan said about his talk with the US president. In what may be a journalistic first, rather than put words in someone's mouth, the Today's Zaman headline put words in somebody's eyes.
[UPDATE: I have been informed by Today's Zaman and other reporters present at the event that the account was accurate and that Ricciardone did indeed have a "stunned" look on his face after hearing what Erdogan said. It was not my intention to call into question the reliability or credibility of the article's author, Ali Aslan, but rather to point out the misleading nature of its headline, since ascribing a reaction to a public official in a headline traditionally involves verbal, rather than non-verbal, confirmation of that reaction in the text of the related story. My sincere apologies to Mr. Aslan, who accurately reported what he saw, for any confusion that was created. I have modified the text accordingly.]
Considering that the Erdogan-Gulen fight is only going to get worse, chances are that the US will continue to get sucked into it. The Gulen movement, which has developed a strong network of organizations in Washington, will no doubt use whatever levers it has to make it look like it has the US's moral, if not political, support. Erdogan, meanwhile, will likely continue reminding his supporters that Gulen is being "sheltered" in the US, something which will help reinforce the narrative he has created of his government being threatened by a plot hatched by the Gulenists and their foreign allies.
In either case, this state of affairs doesn't bode well for Turkey-US relations, with Washington continuously finding itself painted as either partner or villain in a domestic battle it doesn’t want to be involved in. At a certain point, despite that direct flight from Washington to Istanbul, the US might find that having more distance, not less, between it and Turkey is the healthiest thing for the time being.