Erdogan Links U.S. Alliance to Gulen’s Return as Base Reopens

  • Turkish president refers to ‘strategic partner’s request’
  • Kerry tells Turks to ‘show us the evidence’ about cleric

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, newly emboldened after crushing a coup attempt, is testing his country’s key defense relationship by demanding the U.S. turn over a cleric he accuses of inspiring the uprising.

Turkey's Continental Divide

Erdogan on Sunday repeated his challenge to the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who lives in exile in rural Pennsylvania, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry balanced comments about considering such a request with criticizing the Turks for implying the U.S. had involvement in the coup attempt.

“If we’re strategic partners, I’m saying, carry through on your strategic partner’s request,” Erdogan said in Istanbul. “When you wanted a terrorist, we delivered him to you. Now we’re saying deliver this guy who’s on our terrorist list to us.”

An immediate point of tension in the partnership was resolved Sunday when the U.S. resumed flights out of Incirlik Air Base, a staging point for the fight against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook. Operations at Incirlik were halted Saturday after the Turkish government closed its airspace to military aircraft and cut off commercial power to the base, which hosts about 1,500 American military personnel and aircraft.

Commander Arrested

The reopening came after Turkey arrested the base commander in connection with the coup, according to a text message from Erdogan’s press office.

“You have to begin to be concerned that if the U.S. continues to resist the extradition request and other requirements, would the Turkish government restrict use of Incirlik, would they start impacting our operations against ISIS,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They are a crucial ally -- the location is very, very important, but they have been an extremely challenging ally to work with.”

Kerry said Turkey would have to submit a formal request for extradition and prove its accusations. “Give us the evidence, show us the evidence,” he said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

Insinuation Rejected

Kerry also pushed back against an insinuation, made most forcefully by Turkish Labor Minister Suleyman Soylu, that the U.S. was involved in the military uprising that left almost 200 dead before the Erdogan-led government regained control.

“The United States is not harboring anybody, we’re not preventing anything from happening,” Kerry said. “We think it’s irresponsible to have accusations of American involvement when we’re simply waiting for their request” for the extradition.

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The demand may force the Obama administration to confront anew the uneasy nature of its relationship with Erdogan, who has shown an increasing bent toward authoritarianism while allowing coalition troops on Turkish soil and hosting nearly 3 million refugees from Syria.

Turkey’s strategic importance arises from being a majority-Muslim nation positioned between Europe and Asia, a bridge that has served as an entryway for refugees fleeing violence in neighboring Syria. That border has been a frustration for the Obama administration, which has pressed Turkey to shut it down.

Erdogan Tightens Grip

Erdogan had been tightening his grip on power over the last three years, stifling debate while fighting accusations of corruption. That has polarized the nation and rattled investors. With criticism of Erdogan’s ruling style increasing, President Barack Obama this spring declined to have an official meeting with the Turkish leader, who was in Washington for a nuclear security summit. At the time, Obama said Erdogan’s policies risked leading his nation down a “troubling” path.

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After putting down the coup attempt and arresting more than 2,800 military personnel, Erdogan and members of his administration quickly shifted the focus to Gulen, who was once an ally of Erdogan’s in his battle for control of the country against the secularist army. Gulen, in interviews Saturday with media outlets including the Associated Press and New York Times, denied any role in the coup.

Erdogan on Saturday said Turkey had already been preparing an application seeking extradition with details about Gulen’s involvement in illegal activities. “After last night, we have one more thing to add to an already extensive list,” he said.

Slim Chance

The Justice Department declined to comment on whether it is looking into Gulen.

The chances of the U.S. extraditing Gulen, who has lived in the country for nearly 20 years, are slim, said Brett Bruen, a former official in Obama’s National Security Council and now president of the Global Situation Room consulting firm.

“I don’t see a scenario at the moment at least in which he is extradited to Turkey,” Bruen said. “The evidence that has been presented that he was somehow behind this coup is still not there. And obviously there would be very real concerns about what would befall him if he were turned over to Turkish authorities.”

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