Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sat for an interview with CBS News’s 60 Minutes on Sunday, and he pronounced himself “disillusioned” with the Obama administration’s failure to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis “seriously” or extradite cleric Fethullah Gulen.
“We have addressed these issues, discussed them with President Obama and Vice President Biden. They failed to rise to the occasion and handle these issues seriously. This is quite upsetting for us,” Erdogan told interviewer Steve Kroft, referring to the security threat created by the Syrian civil war and the millions of refugees pouring into Turkey.
“You seem very frustrated with the United States,” Kroft suggested.
“Well, let me be very frank in my remarks and I’ve been known for my candor. I wouldn’t speak the truth if I said I was not disillusioned. Because I am disillusioned,” Erdogan replied.
As for Gulen, Erdogan said he was “the leader of a terrorist organization that has bombed my parliament.”
“We have extradited terrorists to the United States in the past. And we expect the same thing to be done by the United States,” Erdogan declared.
He stopped short of endorsing conspiracy theories popular with his supporters about U.S. support for the coup attempt in July, but as Kroft noted, he was not exactly working hard to discourage the Turkish people from believing in such theories.
“I’m not going to blame the United States. But that’s what my people will think. Why are you still keeping that man? So as long you harbor him there, I’m sorry, don’t get offended. But this is the perception of the Turkish nation and the Turkish people,” said Erdogan.
The Turkish president defended his crackdown on suspected coup supporters and the Gulenist movement, which has led to some 30,000 detentions and 100,000 firings or suspensions to date. Some critics think Erdogan’s government has used the coup as an excuse to crush Gulen’s followers, while others — including academic Soli Ozel, quoted during the 60 Minutes segment — say it is more like Erdogan is using the Gulenist conspiracy as a pretext for crushing everyone else he finds inconvenient to his authoritarian goals.
“In Turkey, they attempted to destroy my state. And of course, we could not remain silent. We could not remain indifferent. And these measures are being taken by prosecutors and judges in full accordance with the rule of law,” Erdogan insisted. “We have saved our country from the hands of a heinous coup. And we are very much determined to protect our democracy.”
He also addressed criticism about the Turkish government’s clash with the Kurds, a conflict that has spread for battles with Kurdish separatists inside Turkey to include Kurdish forces that have been indispensable allies of the U.S. and Europe against the Islamic State.
“You cannot defend another terrorist organization just because they are fighting ISIS as well. You cannot make a distinction between a good terrorist organization and a bad terrorist organization,” Erdogan argued.
The incoming Trump administration is seen as friendlier to Turkish interests than Obama was, particularly on the question of Gulen’s extradition, given that Trump’s chosen national security adviser, retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, has called for a swifter response to Turkey’s request. The Turkish embassy was pleased by Flynn’s comments — Gulen’s lawyers, much less so.
Writing for Bloomberg View, Eli Like suggests Trump is already wheeling and dealing with Erdogan by floating the idea of a speedy Gulen extradition, a strategy that supporters hope will use the tremendous significance Erdogan’s government has placed upon Gulen as leverage against them, moving Turkey more firmly into the United States’s orbit as an ally against ISIS and Syria. In essence, Erdogan has maneuvered himself into a position where he can’t refuse a very hard Trump bargain for handing Gulen over.
Critics charge that even if successful, such a gambit would cost the U.S. its relationship with the Kurds, and that would be a bitter pill for stalwart battlefield allies against ISIS to swallow. Erdogan’s 60 Minutes interview conveyed the impression that he currently sees no reason to change either his tactics or his goals. Bitter pills may be the only effective medication available to the next administration’s Middle Eastern strategists.