Let’s just be clear: The murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate was the best thing that’s happened to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a long, long time.
It was just four months ago when Erdogan appeared to be on the ropes. The lira (which was already under enormous pressure from Erdogan’s aversion to rate hikes) had collapsed in the face of the Turkish autocrat’s extremely ill-advised decision to install his son-in-law as economic czar. Just weeks later, the imposition of U.S. sanctions in retaliation for the detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson made a bad situation immeasurably worse. By mid-August, it looked as though Erdogan might have to go hat in hand to the IMF for a bailout, lest the Turkish economy should spiral into an outright crisis.
Ever the incorrigible autocrat, Erdogan decided to wait things out, and it paid off – “big league.”
Just 10 days after Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, Erdogan freed Andrew Brunson, allowing Ankara to highlight the stark contrast between how the Trump administration was behaving towards Turkey and how Washington was protecting Riyadh in the face of an international backlash. Why, Erdogan implicitly asked, was the U.S. treating a NATO ally who had just acquiesced to demands to free an accused terror collaborator with such palpable disdain while protecting the Saudi monarchy which clearly participated in the extrajudicial killing of a Washington Post columnist in a consulate?
As the weeks went by, it became abundantly clear that Erdogan intended to push for a royal shakeup in Riyadh by holding evidence of bin Salman’s role in the Khashoggi murder over Washington’s head. It was about revenge for the Muslim Brotherhood, retribution for the quashing of the Arab Spring and also about scoring one for Ankara’s ally in Doha, following the Saudi-led blockade that threatened to spark an economic crisis in Qatar in the summer of 2017.
But that’s not going to be enough for Erdogan and Washington knows it.
So guess what? Erdogan looks like he is a step closer to achieving his ultimate goal: The extradition of arch rival Fethullah Gulen.
In a truly dramatic twist (if it pans out), NBC reports that the Trump administration is “looking for ways to remove” Gulen from the U.S. “in order to placate Turkey over the murder of Khashoggi.” That’s according to two senior U.S. officials and two other people briefed on the requests who spoke to NBC. Here’s more:
Trump administration officials last month asked federal law enforcement agencies to examine legal ways of removing exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen in an attempt to persuade Erdogan to ease pressure on the Saudi government, the four sources said.
The effort includes directives to the Justice Department and FBI that officials reopen Turkey’s case for his extradition, as well as a request to the Homeland Security Department for information about his legal status, the four people said.
They said the White House specifically wanted details about Gulen’s residency status in the U.S. Gulen has a Green Card, according to two people familiar with the matter. He has been living in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s.
Again, this is remarkable. You’re reminded that the Brunson situation was just another episode in the long running reality show that is Erdogan’s never-ending quest to get his hands on Gulen, who Erdogan blames for everything under the sun including, of course, the failed coup attempt in 2016. For good measure, Erdogan also claimed Brunson was allied with the PKK, which is second only to the Gulenist “movement” when it comes to people Erdogan hates.
Erdogan has been trying to get his hands on Gulen for years, allegedly going so far as to try and convince Michael Flynn and his son to kidnap the Pennsylvania-based cleric in exchange for $15 million.
You can trace this story back as far as you want to, but just to underscore how convoluted it is, do note that Erdogan has long claimed that Gulen has links to Preet Bharara. In a conversation with then-Vice President Joe Biden, Erdogan accused Bharara of being “a Gulenist tool” and demanded that Biden have the then-U.S. Attorney fired.
Of course Bharara was ultimately fired, only not by Joe Biden – rather by Donald Trump.
It goes well beyond that. Back in March of 2017, when then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Turkey, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reiterated Erdogan’s demand that Gulen be handed over to Turkish authorities and while standing next to Tillerson at a press conference, accused Bharara (who had been fired by Trump just two weeks earlier) of being a Gulen sympathizer.
Just a month before that March meeting between Tillerson and Cavusoglu, Erdogan met with Rudy Giuliani and Michael Mukasey, who represented Reza Zarrab, the trader with Erdogan ties implicated in an oil-for-gold scheme that involved the circumvention of U.S. sanctions on Iran. Zarrab was prosecuted last year, much to the chagrin of Erdogan.
Giuliani called Bharara on February 24, 2017, and told him about his planned trip to Turkey. On that trip, Giuliani attempted to secure some kind of concessions from Erdogan in exchange for the release of Zarrab. Bharara was fired by Trump just 15 days later.
That’s what we’re talking about here. If Erdogan can pull this off, it would be a crowning achievement for NATO’s “favorite” autocrat.
To be clear, veteran U.S. officials know how big of a deal this really is. Here’s what one source told NBC:
At first there were eye rolls, but once they realized it was a serious request, the career guys were furious.
As NBC goes on to note, this “suggests the White House could be looking for ways to contain Erdogan’s ire over the murder while preserving Trump’s close alliance with Saudi Arabia’s controversial de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”
Apparently, Trump has floated the idea of shipping Gulen to South Africa if the administration can’t figure out a way to send him directly to Erdogan. That, despite the fact that Trump has absolutely zero legal justification for sending Gulen to Africa.
If you’re wondering whether Erdogan is also using the Khashoggi episode to try and get Mehmet Hakan Atilla back to Turkey, the answer is: “Of course.” Here’s NBC again:
Trump and Erdogan also recently discussed another option to relieve tensions — the release of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who was sentenced in May to 32 months in prison by a U.S. federal judge for his role in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran, two people familiar with the discussion said. Erdogan has criticized the case against Atilla as a political attack aimed at undermining his government.
And it just gets better (or “worse”, depending on how you want to look at it). Erdogan reportedly made it clear to Mike Pompeo last month that one of Ankara’s demands for not pushing the Khashoggi issue is the extradition of Gulen. “That was their number one ask,” another source told NBC.
So if you doubted for a second that Erdogan wasn’t going to leverage the incredible hand the Saudis accidentally dealt him on October 2, you were sorely mistaken.
This is yet another example of why it is everywhere and always a mistake to underestimate Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
(Oh, and if Trump does remove Gulen from the U.S., expect an international backlash).