ANKARA, TURKEY — Ever since a failed coup in July of 2016, the increasingly anti-democratic policies of the Turkish government under the leadership of President Recep Erdogan have become an embarrassment for the NATO member’s Western allies. While many people may be aware, at least to some extent, of the ongoing crackdowns inside of Turkey, few recognize that the government led purge is quickly expanding beyond the nation’s borders in numerous ways.
Even if you don’t regularly follow Turkish politics, it’s still likely you’ve encountered some form of news media covering at least something about Turkey since 2016. It is also likely that at least some of what you saw, heard, or read concerned the ongoing social media crackdowns, mass arrests of journalists, and the post-coup purge that has resulted in dismissals of 151,967 academics, public servants, and journalists (as well as 64,998 arrested).
These purges have sent shockwaves throughout Turkey, crushing nearly all viable opposition parties and civil-society groups seen as enemies by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). This has, in turn, caused some obvious public-relations headaches for NATO (in which Erdogan may be reconsidering his membership) and the European Union (which Erdogan has all but abandoned his bid to join) — but nothing that classic empty Western platitudes, apologia, and excuses can’t sweep under the rug.
While the crackdowns inside of Turkey usually only warrant weak critiques from sympathetic media such as Foreign Policy or Reuters, unfortunately for Washington, there are more expansive controversies unfolding that are bound to put a strain on U.S.-Turkey relations. Even with US support during and since the 2016 coup under Obama (despite Erdogan’s claims that the US was behind it) and further concessions by Trump, Ankara still has an endless list of demands, grievances, and political targets in the diaspora — most notably the exiled cleric, alleged coup mastermind, and former Erdogan ally Fethullah Gulen.
Most U.S. allies would likely understand that as a member of NATO (even if Turkey has the second largest military in the alliance), every nation is still subject to the will of the U.S. Yet Erdogan is not your average U.S. ally and, instead of pleading to deaf ears in Washington, he has decided to take his purge global and use every method available to secure his power.
If this sounds bad, it only gets worse, and even the U.S. is reconsidering its relationship with Turkey, as Erdogan turns to increasingly controversial practices (often involving U.S. nationals) that look a lot like hostage negotiations and kidnappings.
Much as with other brutal states allied with the West, recent history shows that Washington likely would have provided the necessary cover for Erdogan’s purges, much as they did for Saudi Arabia’s ‘anti-corruption’ chaos. As a NATO member — and home to U.S. nuclear weapons — Turkey would likely have had even more of this kind of political leeway than have other non-NATO U.S. allies.
A dilemma for Erdogan, however, is that he is now seemingly past the point where the U.S. and EU can credibly craft excuses for him. There are many factors that contributed to this state of affairs, but one stands above the rest: time.
This July will mark two years since the failed coup and, even with Erdogan securing his rule and consolidating power through a series of constitutional changes, the purge goes on. This, in turn, has become a source of tension between Ankara and the West, as the AKP has begun to run low on suspected ‘traitors’ and has begun sweeping up employees of U.S. agencies and even U.S. nationals.
Despite having pulled a lengthy list of purge targets together before the coup even happened, Erdogan has continued to arrest thousands, now including a variety of Turkish nationals who work as U.S. diplomatic staff. The real tension, however, has been caused by Ankara’s arrest and illegal detainment of foreign nationals.
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In the never-ending quest to see Gulen returned to Turkey, Ankara has attempted to use everyone from terror suspects to United Nations human rights judges as bargaining chips to secure the exiled clerics extradition. But, there is one case of an arrested U.S. national that is probably most embarrassing for Washington: the Christian pastor Andrew Brunson.
Brunson — a missionary in Turkey for 23 years, who was ordered to leave Turkey in late 2016 — was illegally detained for 63 days by Turkish immigration authorities and denied access to an attorney. Following this two-month period, between when he was arrested and when he was slated to be sent back to the United States, Brunson was brought before another Turkish judge, who took him from immigration detention and placed him in a Turkish prison on charges of “gathering state secrets for espionage, attempting to overthrow the Turkish parliament and government, and to change the constitutional order,” and membership in a terrorist organization. The information that led to Brunson’s arrest and that is being used as state’s evidence is primarily derived from a single undisclosed witness — one whose testimony seems to be open for interpretation, as its scope seems to randomly expand to impound everything from proof of support for Gulen to support of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). As of March 20th, the charges have officially been filed to include both of the aforementioned claims. Brunson faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted.
Arrests like Brunson’s are fairly run-of-the-mill in Erdogan’s Turkey, but the fact that Brunson is a citizen of the U.S., and not a dual Turkish, U.S. citizen, has caused headaches for the U.S. Earlier in 2017, the Trump administration made attempts to secure the return of Brunson which they likely hoped Ankara would quietly ignore (as both countries often try to downplay the others indiscretions), what happened instead made the situation even worse.
Rather than quietly moving on from the Trump administration’s request, Erdogan went public with a set of demands for the return of Brunson, essentially making the pastor a hostage. In September of last year, it was published in the Turkish media that Erdogan had apparently told the U.S. he would exchange one pastor for another (Gulen) and that this should “be easy for the U.S..” Erdogan also made the hostage negotiation seem generous, as he was willing to trade Brunson, a man who had already been proven to be a terrorist in Ankara’s opinion.
The U.S. hasn’t taken Erdogan up on its offer for Brunson, and both Washington and European capitals have rebuffed a multitude of other demands by Turkey in the last year and a half. That’s not enough to deter a man like Erdogan, who has instead decided that if he can’t have Gulen (for now) he still has a long list of targets in diaspora and a host of methods to reach them, methods that just so happen to look a lot like kidnapping.
Turkish kidnappings go global
You may have heard of one Turkish kidnapping plot last year: allegedly cooked up between former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, his son Michael Flynn Jr, and the Turkish government. The plot was alleged by former CIA director James Woolsey (and denied by Flynn) and apparently involved a $15 million offer from Turkey to illegally kidnap and extradite Gulen from his compound in Pennsylvania.
While the existence of the Flynn kidnapping plot remains unproven, other extraditions of “terror suspects” to Turkey happen regularly at a much lower level. The Western media may have been excited about a potential scandal involving the Flynn kidnapping plot, but have remained largely silent on other criminal extraditions to Turkey taking place around the globe.
In the case of Sudan, authorities in the African nation were aided by Turkish intelligence in locating Memduh Cikmaz, a supposed ‘money man’ for Gulen, and then picking him up in a joint raid that led to Cikmaz’s extradition to Turkey. Sudan and Turkey clearly worked out the groundwork for these kinds of raids in their intelligence agreements, making them technically legal under international law; but other cases that seem much shakier.
Of the more legally questionable extraditions is the case of journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, who disappeared from his home in exile in Tbilisi. The Georgian authorities were apparently unaware of any operations within the city and had no idea where Mukhtarli had gone until he mysteriously appeared in an Azerbaijani courtroom days later.
The examples of Cikmaz and Mukhtarli show a very stark contrast between technically legal and very clearly illegal extraditions of Turkish citizens, but Turkey also uses a third option that often walks a blurry line of legality: INTERPOL’s “Red Notices.”
INTERPOL, the global organization that coordinates cross-border law enforcement, describes Red Notices as “a request to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition. It is issued by the General Secretariat at the request of a member country or an international tribunal based on a valid national arrest warrant.” INTERPOL also specifies that Red Notices are “not an international arrest warrant” and, while “INTERPOL cannot compel any member country to arrest an individual who is the subject of a Red Notice,” handing over suspects on these international lists is often seen as a regular part of global diplomacy.
Turkey may be able to persuade countries like Qatar and Pakistan to mass-deport suspected Gulenists but, when it comes to Western countries, INTERPOL is the preferred channel for Turkish witch hunts. The Red Notices, along with clever diplomatic pressure, often lead to extraditions of figures like leftist writer Dogan Akhanli, who was extradited from Spain under a Red Notice despite supposedly being protected by UN charters for the safety of political asylum seekers.
However less cooperation by intelligence agencies in European countries leads to Turkish intelligence using illegal methods to identify political refugees. One striking example of this was recently exposed in Germany, where agents of Ankara infiltrated the immigration system — primarily under the guise of translators — to finger suspected Gulenist and Kurdish allies seeking asylum, to be later targeting by international bodies to which Turkey is a party.
This shocking behavior coming from a NATO ally may seem hard to believe until you remember that Turkey is a forward operating post for Western troops and a key to U.S. and EU strategy as the “gateway to the Middle East.” Erdogan may no longer be the hoped-for example of a pro-Western leader who embraces both democracy and Islamism, but the stakes of Ankara’s alliance with the West remain high, especially as the war in Syria continues to rage on. That said, it is still very likely that Turkey and the West’s irreconcilable differences will bubble over at some point and, when they do, all of these bold moves by Turkey in pursuit of its global purge could possibly bring an end to a key US alliance.
Top Photo | Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, holding an olive branch arrives to deliver a speech at an event in Ankara, Turkey, Feb. 20, 2018. (Pool Photo via AP)
James Carey is journalist and editor at Geopolitics Alert. He specializes in Middle East and Asian affairs.