Unlike his soon-to-be predecessor in office, US president-elect Joe Biden is no admirer of strong ruthless leaders. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, may well find that his increasingly aggressive foreign policies ‒ headstrong behavior that President Donald Trump condoned ‒ may be met with resistance from a Biden administration. Moreover Erdogan has a long-standing grievance against the US. He got nowhere with it during either the Obama or the Trump presidencies. He is not likely to get much further with Joe Biden at the helm.
The issue that rankles with Erdogan centers around a man that has been a thorn in his flesh for much of his time as leader – Muhammed Fethullah Gulen. Gulen was once one of the main spiritual leaders of Erdogan’s political party, the AKP, preaching a blend of moderate, business-friendly Islam that helped the party rise to power. Erdogan now regards Gulen as his mortal enemy, and ever since 2014 has demanded time and again that the US extradite him to Turkey to stand trial. Washington has consistently refused to comply.
Erdogan’s most recent effort stems from a Turkish court ruling on November 26. It decreed that Gulen is to be charged with master-minding a coup attempt back in 2016. However Gulen, who has been living in the US since 1999, has been granted a Green Card which allows him to live and work there indefinitely. As President Biden is most unlikely to hand the 79-year-old cleric over to the tender mercies of the Turkish president, the trial ‒ if it goes ahead ‒ will have to be held in the absence of the defendant.
The issue from Erdogan’s point of view was the vast influence that Gulen acquired in the early 2000s both within Turkey and abroad. As leader of the Gulen, or Hizmet, movement he built up an impressive business, social and media empire, while his schools were grooming the next generation of pious yet entrepreneurially minded followers in Turkey. Erdogan saw him increasingly as a rival for power and a potential threat to his own ambitions. He began denouncing the Gulen movement as “a state within a state”.
Gulen had followers at high levels in the Turkish establishment, including the judiciary, the secret service and the police force. Early in December 2013 Erdogan was furious to discover that, for more than a year and unknown to him, the police had been engaged in an undercover inquiry into corruption within the government and the upper echelons of his AKP party. By the end of the year Erdogan’s own son had been named in the widening corruption investigation. Erdogan denounced the police investigation as a plot by the Gulen movement to discredit his government.
In December 2014 some 20 journalists working for media outlets thought to be sympathetic to the Gulen movement were arrested, and a Turkish court issued an arrest warrant for Gulen himself. He was accused of establishing and running an “armed terrorist group”.
Then came the confusing sequence of events of July 15, 2016, amounting to what was apparently a coup against the government by political opponents who had been able to mobilize elements within the army and the air force.. Whatever the truth behind it, Erdogan’s reaction was to accuse Gulen of having orchestrated the whole coup attempt with the backing of the US administration. At the time, be it noted, Joe Biden was vice-president.
Erdogan instituted retribution of unprecedented severity on people in all walks of life suspected of opposing the regime. More than 110,000 people were arrested, including nearly 11,000 police officers, 7,500 members of the military, and 2,500 prosecutors and judges. 179 media outlets were shut down, and some 2,700 journalists dismissed.
Erdogan has returned again and again to the coup to justify ever more stringent clamp-downs on political opponents and the media, accompanied by continuing condemnation of Gulen, and repeated demands that the US extradite him to stand trial in Turkey. Those demands may have lost something of their validity since 2017, when Erdogan removed Gulen’s Turkish nationality.
The latest such coup-related operation occurred in the last week of November, when a Turkish court found 475 military and civilian personnel at an air base guilty of involvement in the coup attempt and jailed them for life. This trial was one of two being conducted against members of a suspected network, which the government claims is led by Gulen whom it accuses of orchestrating the failed coup. Gulen has denied any involvement.
Erdogan’s accusations against Gulen are just as unlikely to impress Biden as his recent posturings on the world stage. The most provocative, perhaps, was Erdogan’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, which is designed specifically to counter fighter aircraft like the US’s most state-of-the-art multi-purpose F-35. He then attempted to acquire the F-35 itself. In short Turkey, a member of NATO, was proposing to let Russia in by the back door. As a result the US ejected Turkey from the F-35 program, but when Congress voted recently for sanctions against Turkey, Trump blocked them. President Biden is quite likely to be in support.
Another bone of contention is Turkey’s intervention in Syria against America’s allies, the Syrian Kurds, whose valiant Peshmerga troops led the fight against Islamic State. When Trump turned a blind eye to Erdogan’s partial takeover of northern Syria, and then reduced the US troop presence there, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress opposed him. Biden is on record as saying “Turkey is the real problem,” and that he would tell “Erdogan that he will pay a heavy price.”
Biden is equally unlikely to favor Erdogan’s recent military interventions in Libya or in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, both pretty obviously regarded by him as opportunities to extend Turkish influence in the Middle East. In both cases, he said his rationale was to protect people of Turco-Ottoman descent. Then in mid-August 2020, he sent an oil and gas exploration vessel, escorted by warships, into what has always been regarded as Greek territorial waters, accusing Greece of trying to grab an unfair share of untapped resources. None of this is calculated to endear him to Biden or his new administration.
With all this simmering in the background, US-Turkish relations are scarcely set fair.
Neville Teller is read Modern History at Oxford University. He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years and has published five books on the subject, and blogs at a Mid East Journal. His latest book is “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”.
He was made an MBE – The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – in 2006 “for services to broadcasting and to drama.”