Allies of Erdoğan enemy Gülen fear Trump will ship him to Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrives at the White House on Wednesday at a time of high tension between the United States and Turkey.

Nowhere will that tension be more strongly felt than in a rural religious retreat 200 miles north in the Pocono Mountains, home to Fethullah Gülen, a frail Muslim cleric who has made it his mission to promote Islam’s moderate, modernizing face to millions of global followers — or a man plotting to bring down Erdoğan, depending on your point of view.

Erdoğan has sought the cleric’s extradition for years. And now, after Ankara’s offensive to drive Kurdish fighters from a “safe zone” in northeast Syria, a threat of U.S. sanctions, and a state-owned bank charged with fraud in a New York court, followers of Gülen, 78, fear he could be used as a pawn in a bigger game.

“We are very concerned,” said Alp Aslandogan, executive director of the Alliance for Shared Values and a Gülen ally. “We know that the U.S.-Turkey relationship is a very valuable one for the U.S.,” Aslandogan said. “Turkey has very valuable assets and facilitates important operations, and we are very worried about the Erdoğan government using this as a leverage to get Erdoğan’s political wishes.”

Gülen is little known in the U.S. and is never seen outside the 26-acre retreat in Saylorsburg, where he has lived since 1999. The former resort for hunters was bought by his movement to host a Muslim summer camp but was converted into a home and retreat when Gülen moved to the U.S.

He arrived at the urging of his doctors, who said his heart would not survive much longer in Turkey’s febrile political atmosphere.

Despite the low profile, his presence has affected members of Trump’s circle and cast a shadow over regional policy.

Turkey alleges that Gülen was the mastermind of a failed coup in 2016. Some 300 people died during an apparent attempt by army officers to seize power that fizzled within hours.

A purge of the civil service, judiciary, and armed forces followed. Tens of thousands of people were detained or suspended from their posts, many of them followers of Gülen and his global network of charities, businesses, and schools.

Aslandogan said Gülen had always denied any involvement and would submit to an independent, international investigation.

“It was a show coup,” he said, one designed to provide cover for a roundup of opponents.

Regional observers are less sure. Nick Danforth, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said there was a consensus that Gülenists were involved and may have had a leadership role.

“That said, the Turkish government hasn’t released concrete evidence linking Gülen himself directly to the coup, of the sort that would be necessary to secure an extradition in a U.S. court of law,” he said.

Erdoğan has found influential allies as he pursues the reclusive cleric.

Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was a lobbyist for a businessman linked with Erdoğan’s government while he advised the 2016 campaign. In an Election Day opinion piece for the Hill, he described Gülen as a “radical Islamist.”

Flynn’s fall from grace did not stop Rudy Giuliani from subsequently taking up the case, raising it so frequently during White House visits that a former administration official described it as his “hobby horse,” according to the Washington Post.

Reports surfaced last year that the Trump administration was considering giving up Gülen to smooth Middle East relations. But the plan to use Gülen, a green card holder with the right to live in the U.S., to persuade Erdoğan to ease pressure on Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Ankara went nowhere.

But regional experts expect the issue to be raised again on Wednesday.

“They bring it up every time,” said another former official. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they come up with a pitch that handing over Gülen might help ease all the other tensions.”

And there are plenty of other tensions. Congress recently angered Ankara by formally recognizing the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. And on Sunday, Trump’s national security adviser said Turkey would face sanctions if it did not give up its recently purchased Russian S-400 defense systems, which threaten U.S. F-35 warplanes. Then there is Turkey’s Halkbank, which has been charged with corruption in New York.

Last week, Erdoğan said everything would be on the table.

“Of course, we will discuss the safe zone in Syria and the return of refugees. We will discuss the S-400s, F-35s, our $100 billion trade volume issue. We will also discuss the battle with FETO and the Halkbank issue,” he said, using the Turkish government’s nomenclature for the Fetullah Terrorist Organization.

His strategy, said Danforth, is to use his relationship with Trump to protect Turkey from more hostile sentiment elsewhere in government. But that would not help him get his hands on the elderly cleric in Pennsylvania.

“We have a functioning rule of law that means he can’t order Gülen extradited in the way he can simply ignore congressionally sanctioned capital sanctions,” he said.

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Author: Washington Examiner