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Erdogan, Gulen, and the United States - Endgame Triangle

By Michael Collins - Posted on 28 December 2013

Is is really Erdogan versus Gulen or is Gulen a proxy?  Image: Wikicommons

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan faces major challenges from the opposition and within his own party, the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party).  Through his rash actions and compulsive need for control, the PM has paved the road to his political demise.  He may fall as a result of the current scandal or his exit may be somewhat delayed.  In either case, things will be very ugly in Turkey before PM's not so long good-bye is over.  This will be at the expense of the Turkish people, who have done nothing to deserve this. (Image:  Turkish PM Erdogan and former ally, Fethullah Gulen.  WikiCommons)

On December 17, Turkish police and prosecutors brought corruption charges against members of Erdogan's cabinet and some of their family members.  The charges came after a nationwide investigation of political corruption.  As police in Ankara rounded up suspects, the Istanbul police chief refused to arrest 30 of those charged in that city.

Erdogan responded in a manic fit by firing prosecutors and key police investigators involved in the arrests.  Then, the PM went on the attack with a blistering series of invectives aimed at the opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP), other outsiders, and the U.S. Ambassador.  The death of a key Turkish corruption investigator in Ankara added fuel to speculation on the intensity internal politics surrounding the PM.

Erdogan versus Gulen?  

On the surface, the conflict appears to be between PM Erdogan and the Hizmet movement leader Fethullah Gulen.  Once close allies, the two have diverged on policy lately in a way that reflects a deeper power struggle.

Gulen's movement is massive in Turkey, wielding influence through a series of private prep schools that focus on gaining scarce university admissions for a broad audience of applicants.   The movement presents itself as a moderating force in politics, a compassionate form of Islam based on a Turkish Muslim scholar.  Gulen, the man who encompasses the movement, is reputedly worth billions of dollars.  His empire operates largely in secret and, according to former insiders who left, it has authoritarian structures like the Church of Scientology.

Gulen was accused advocating an Islamic takeover of the state in Turkey in 1999 and has lived in "self imposed" exile in Pennsylvania since that time.  He continued to manage his worldwide efforts, including Madrasas throughout Asia, and also helped lay the foundation for the AKP political movement.

Erdogan was a key figure in the development of AKP; the popular and dynamic mayor of Istanbul who lead the party to a national victory in 2003.

Differences between Gulen and Erdogan began when the AKP majority in Turkey's parliament turned down a U.S. request to transit Turkey as part of the northern front in the 2003 Iraq invasion.  Erdogan supported U.S. access and his AKP ally (and current President of  Turkey) Abdullah Gul opposed cooperation.  Gul is closely aligned with the Hizmet and Gulen.

Ironically, the full on hostilities between Eerdogan and the Gullen faction began with another disagreement over U.S. policy in the Levant.  Erdogan has been a strong supporter of the attack on the Syrian government.  Turkey provides special training, with NATO allies, at a a secret training center in Adana, Turkey.  It allows foreign fighters to fly into Turkey on their way to join Islamist jihadist fighters in Syria.

The Gulen forces, represented by the newspaper, Today's Zaman, has been critical of Erdogan's Syria policy, most recently warning of blowback from the PM's Syria policy on November 27:  Turkey Should Prepare Itself for Mass Exodus of Fighters from Syria.

When the recent scandals broke, Today's Zaman ran an article speculating on the deeper investigation behind the arrests mentioning preferential treatment for Al Qaeda.  The paper followed up with a report that "Al Qaeda suspects" had fled as a result of Erdogan's mass firings of police and prosecutors who initiated the corruption arrests.

Apparently, Erdogan had enough of the carping and fired back.  He closed the prep schools/Madrasas operated by the Gulen movement.  This was a direct attack on Gulen and his followers.  The schools were simply outlawed.   The schools employ over 100,000 Gulen followers and provide a service, university prep courses, that attract people to the Hizmet ranks.

That was followed by the corruption arrests of Erdogan allies and patrons and Erdogan's further response of mass firings of hundreds of police and prosecutors.

Is this really Erdogan versus Gulen or is it something deeper

Erdogan has been supportive of U.S.-NATO efforts to destabilize the region.  He backed the effort to take down Gaddafi's Libya and has been a solid supporter of the attack on Syria.  When differences have arisen, Erdogan has been caustic and difficult.  He was a firm ally of the Moslem Brotherhood presidency of Egypt's Mohamed Morsi.

When the Egyptian army removed Morsi, Erdogan was irate and irritated with the U.S. for not standing behind Morsy.

When the Obama administration failed to attack Syrian forces after the chemical weapons incident, again Erdogan was irate.  He harshly criticized the U.S. but moderated his criticism after a trip to Washington.

The damage may have been done.  The Obama administrations experience with Turkey has been less than positive over the past few months.  Over the same period, Saudi Arabia threatened to downgrade its relationship with the U.S. over disagreements on Syria.  It may be that Erdogan's antics were simply too much to tolerate.  The Saudis may come around after their threats to distance from the U.S.   On the other hand, Erdogan is erratic and unpredictable.  Turkey guards the southern flank of NATO and those two qualities are probably not preferred in a the leader of key ally.

It's certainly not beyond the U.S. to seek regime change and more likely that it will do so through stealth rather than with military force, based on public reluctance to send troops anywhere but home.

Where does Gulen fit in?

A previous Turkish government accused Gulen of trying to overthrow the state.  He fled Turkey for the United States where he received fast track admission as a resident alien.  When his residency status was threatened, key figures in the U.S. intelligence community served as character witnesses as his immigration hearing.  He was allowed to stay.

Gulen runs his Turkish Hizmet movement and worldwide network of Madrasahs from his mansion in rural Pennsylvania.  He also has a lucrative charter school business in the U.S. as well, supported by tax payer dollars.

Sibel Edmonds reviewed a memoir by a former Turkish intelligence chief for says that Gulen's central Asian madrasas were used by the CIA in Central Asia to house operatives in the 1990s.

Erdogan's opponent, Gulen, received the following from the U.S.: special immigration privileges when he fled Turkey; freedom to runs lucrative schools worth millions and a worldwide network worth much more from his home in Pennsylvania.  He has a record of cooperating with US. intelligence according to a former Turkish chief of intelligence.

How independent is Fethullah Gulen?  Would he move aggressively on a head of state of a NATO ally at the risk of losing his U.S. sanctuary?  Would he do so without knowledge of and, perhaps, encouragement by the U.S. government through the CIA or other intelligence agencies?

I suppose all of that is possible but it certainly seems unlikely.

In any case, the Erdogan versus Gulen theme in the news is a mask for a much deeper conflict that will become more obvious as time goes one.  One clue is found in this headline from Today's Zaman, December 26:  EP [European Parliament] strongly warns Turkish gov’t not to cover up corruption.

That's the sort of warning autocratic leaders in the Levant and Middle East get just before the U.S. and its NATO allies bring democracy to the target nation.


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