What does John Kerry plan to do about Erdogan and Turkey?

There’s yet another twist in the story of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he works to recover from the recent coup attempt. In addition to suppressing any and all dissent at home, Erdogan is attempting to reach out across the ocean to his “ally” in the United States and demand the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gulen from Pennsylvania. Given the reception which is likely awaiting Gulen in his home country, this puts the State Department in a bit of a sticky wicket. (The Hill)

Turkey has formally asked the United States to extradite a Muslim cleric it blames for last week’s coup attempt, Turkey’s prime minister said Tuesday.

“We have sent four dossiers to the United States for the extradition of the terrorist chief,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told a meeting of the ruling Justice and Development Party at the parliament, according to state-run Anadolu Agency. “We will present them with more evidence than they want.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused Fethullah Gülen and his followers of orchestrating the attempt to oust him.

Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania under self-imposed exile, has denied any involvement.

This wasn’t unexpected, but it’s an extremely complicated situation for the administration to handle. On the one hand, Turkey is still ostensibly an ally of ours, a member of NATO and a prospective (if doubtful) applicant to join the European Union. Further, they are on the front line in the battle against ISIS, even if their participation in that effort has been less than enthusiastic at times to say the least. Not only is their cooperation in military efforts against ISIS considered critical, but it’s not difficult to imagine scenarios where American soldiers might find themselves in trouble in that region and require Turkish assistance. And we obviously need continued access to the Incirlik Air Base going forward.

So what will Kerry do? Massimo Calabresi at Time Magazine examines the subject this week and finds that Kerry may be in over his head. His initial response, surprisingly, might have been too aggressive toward Turkey rather than leaning toward the deferential side.

At a news conference Monday in Brussels where he was attending EU meetings, Kerry warned Erdogan against using the coup as a pretext for rounding up his political enemies. In the days after the putsch attempt, the Turkish Prime Minister had taken action against thousands of police, judges and members of the military. While it was to be expected that Erdogan would seek to bring to justice those responsible for the coup, Kerry said, “We also caution against a reach that goes well beyond that, and stress the importance of the democratic rule being upheld.”

Even more aggressively, Kerry raised the question of Turkey’s NATO membership, suggesting that anti-democratic behavior by Erdogan could imperil the country’s place in the alliance.

For once I don’t envy Kerry in terms of the situation he finds himself in. He actually seems to be taking the moral high ground here, at least initially. We already looked at how fast the coup turned into a purge this weekend and the rapid evolution of Erdogan from a strong man into what’s rapidly closing in on a dictatorship. He’s locking up people in the tens of thousands and openly talking about reinstating the death penalty for his detractors. (If that hasn’t already started happening to some of the disappeared “suspects” I’ll be shocked indeed.)

But at the same time, Turkey has most of the cards in this game. Yes, they could use the good will of the United States in their ongoing negotiations with Europe, but at the moment we seem to need them more than they need us. This demand to ship off Gulen to them may be a bridge too far however, since he’ll likely wind up with his feet dangling in a vat of acid shortly after he arrives. The question we need to wrestle with is precisely how valuable Gulen is to us and if we’re willing to sacrifice him as a pawn in the bigger game.


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