The triangle of harm and benefit: Erdogan, Gulen and the US

Turkey is an ally of the U.S.

Osman Ilhan of Revolution Observer explains the political relationship behind Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, exiled sufi leader Fethullah Gulen and the US.

The Erdogan-Gulen clash continues to evolve in Turkey as var­i­ous fac­tors con­tinue to push and pull the issue in dif­fer­ent direc­tions. In a very short period of time Recep Tayyip Erdo­gan became one of the most pow­er­ful men in Turk­ish pol­i­tics. Sim­i­larly, Fethul­lah Gulen and his edu­ca­tional move­ment also grew in strength.

Erdo­gan has played a cen­tral role in America’s agenda in the region and this lat­est scan­dal raised many ques­tions on the sus­tain­abil­ity of Erdogan as a polit­i­cal force in the coun­try. To under­stand this and assess if Turkey can fulfill America’s designs there are some key fac­tors that will influence this.

US-Turkey alliance

The Turkish Prime Minister has been an ally of the US since assuming office. The gov­ern­ment has actively par­tic­i­pated in the inva­sion of Afghanistan, given the US sup­port dur­ing the war in Iraq and has become a model coun­try for democ­racy in the Middle East. His “grad­u­al­ist” sup­port­ers don’t deny the cir­cum­stances, cit­ing that US sup­port towards mod­er­ate Islamists and multi-party democ­racy has been the only way to keep the ultra-Kemalist estab­lish­ment at dis­tance within the Turk­ish polit­i­cal arena.

The Turkish military views both Gulen and Erdogan with suspicion.
The Turkish military views both Gulen and Erdogan with suspicion.

Despite being pro-American in foreign policy, Erdogan has recently stood up against Israel quite publicly, and been hailed as a champion of the Palestinian cause. But he is still willing to work with Israel in matters of mutual interest, such as trade relations between the governments and the two-state solution.

How­ever, it was his voice of pub­lic oppo­si­tion that led to many within the Turk­ish estab­lish­ment and media to be more vocal against Israel, dis­turb­ing many within the pro-Israel lob­bies and the US pol­icy mak­ers.

Together with a more actively con­ser­v­a­tive national agenda (such as laws restrict­ing the pub­lic sale of alco­hol, express­ing dis­ap­proval of credit cards and the “interest-rate lobby”, and calls for an increased birth rate), he has caused some con­cern within the US gov­ern­ment and forced a re-think of US for­eign pol­icy towards the Turk­ish government.

Kemalist opposition

What has resulted is the main Kemal­ist oppo­si­tion party recently shift­ing their stance on pol­i­tics. Once a bastion of ultra-secularism and opposed to any public display of religious beliefs, they’ve since toned down their enmity towards Islam and adopted a more US-friendly approach, with the rise of Kemal Kil­ic­daroglu as leader of the CHP (the Repub­li­can People’s Party).

This can be seen in the many pub­lic ral­lies he has under­taken, in seek­ing to appeal to the con­ser­v­a­tive and lib­eral elec­torate, such as sup­port­ing the lift­ing of the hijab ban. Also wor­thy of con­sid­er­a­tion is the shift in stance amongst the mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment, with the rise of Necdet Ozel as Chief of Gen­eral Staff. This has led to actions which are more in-line with Amer­i­can inter­ests, in show­ing less will­ing­ness to pub­licly speak out against the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment as was pre­vi­ously the case.

Despite the US sup­port behind the Kemal­ist oppo­si­tion in their attempts to gain office, it has failed to cap­ture the vast major­ity of the lib­eral and con­ser­v­a­tive votes. Much of their elec­torate is still seen to be from amongst the Alevi minor­ity and those fol­low­ing the tra­di­tional Kemal­ist stance of dis­trust towards the reli­gious crowd. As a result, the Americans have been unwilling to risk severing ties with the Erdogan camp, and have chosen less vocal methods of addressing the Erdogan government and their foreign policy.

The Gulen Movement

In com­par­i­son to the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment, the Gulen move­ment is quite vocal in sup­port­ing both the Amer­i­can and Israeli gov­ern­ments. Of note is also their pub­lic stance against the Iran­ian, Saudi and Russ­ian inter­ests in the region. Such gov­ern­ments have opposed the estab­lish­ment of char­ter schools asso­ci­ated with the Gulen move­ment, as well as their media net­works and busi­ness inter­ests.

Fethullah Gülen wields influence in the Turkish judiciary and police force.
Fethullah Gülen wields influence in the Turkish judiciary and police force.

Publicly the Gulen movement has become champions of open democracy and secular liberal policy on a global scale to broaden the movement on an international platform. They’ve also been quite crit­i­cal of gov­ern­ment pol­icy seek­ing to limit their pub­lic inter­est (such as the clo­sure of pri­va­tion tuition schools within Turkey).

Whilst this can explain the break in rela­tions between the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment and the Gulen move­ment, the pub­lic back­lash and mud-throwing since suggests that darker motives are behind the unrest.

Given the strength of the Israel lobby and their vested inter­est in a more lib­eral Turk­ish gov­ern­ment, one would assume that the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment would be more inclined to sup­port the Gulen move­ment in the recent con­flict.

Whilst this has been sug­gested by some within the AKP camp, Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy has largely remained silent on the issue. The US has been shown to rely on the influence of the Turkish Prime Minister to further their goals in the Middle East, and perhaps it is the lack of political strength within the Gulen movement that has caused the US to be hesitant on public support.

Tra­di­tion­ally when US strate­gic inter­ests were at stake, they have actively cam­paigned to cause a change of gov­ern­ment. How­ever, it is the pro-American stance of the Erdo­gan gov­ern­ment and an unwill­ing­ness of the US to put future inter­ests at stake that has left the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment in a polit­i­cal dilemma.

US sup­port for the Saudi regime (against the direct inter­ests of the Gulen move­ment) and the recent shift in rela­tions with Iran have fur­ther side­lined American will­ing­ness to stand behind the Gulen move­ment. What has resulted is the open attempt to silence the move­ment in Turkey, with Erdo­gan’s gov­ern­ment mov­ing against cer­tain mem­bers within the media, police force, judi­ciary and the bank­ing sec­tor.

Whilst this hasn’t silenced some jour­nal­ists and sup­port­ers (or the mud-throwing that has been occur­ring on pub­lic platforms for the past month), it has for the large part silenced the robust sec­tors asso­ci­ated with the move­ment. It could per­haps also be a key fac­tor in deter­min­ing which side the US will sup­port in the long-term.

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