Could the Trump administration send Fethullah Gülen back to Turkey?

Turkey accuses the cleric of being the author of last summer’s failed coup. Whether or not the Trump administration sides with Turkey or European skeptics could shape the course of the war against ISIS.

Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily/Cihan News Agency/Reuters/File
Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Penn., on September 26, 2013.

Fethullah Gülen leads a reclusive existence in his Pennsylvania compound. Much may hinge on whether or not he remains there.

An extradition request for the cleric, filed by Turkey’s government in September, remains under review, as Turkish impatience grows over the fate of a man that some call a Turkish Osama bin Laden — but whom skeptics describe as little more than a scapegoat for Turkey's power-hungry president.

This weekend, Mr. Gülen is emerging at the center of US controversy, after ex-CIA director James Woolsey told the Wall Street Journal he had been present at a September meeting between top Turkish officials and President Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, in which the two sides discussed ways to deliver Gülen into Turkish custody.

"You might call it brainstorming. But it was brainstorming about a very serious matter that would pretty clearly be a violation of law,” Mr. Woolsey told the newspaper, while cautioning that “a specific plan to undertake a felonious act” was never formulated in his presence.

“It was suspicious, it was concerning, and I felt I needed to say something to somebody, but was it a clear plot that they were going to seize him? No,” he later told CNN.

A spokesman for Flynn, who was paid over $500,000 to lobby for Turkish interests during his time as an advisor to President Trump, has denied the claim. 

"The claim made by Mr. Woolsey that General Flynn, or anyone else in attendance, discussed physical removal of Mr. Gulen from the United States during a meeting with Turkish officials in New York is false,” said Flynn's spokesman, Price Floyd, in a statement.

Woolsey’s accusation underscores the remarkable importance of Gülen, who rejects any allegations of involvement with the July coup attempt. And it animates questions about how US-Turkey relations might shift under the Trump administration, at a time when Turkey’s war against Syrian Kurds is complicating the United States’ own proxy-led campaign against ISIS.

Many US military leaders see the Kurdish peshmerga fighters as the best suited to defeat ISIS, perhaps in part because the peshmerga hope to establish a Kurdish homeland that could encompass territory currently controlled by ISIS. But that territory in northern Syria also adjoins Turkey, which opposes the idea and considers the YPG, the main group of Kurdish fighters, just another wing of a separatist terrorist group operating within Turkey.

Trump has praised the peshmerga. But as the US-led coalition sets its sights on the ISIS capital of Raqqa, the administration is reviewing whether to approve a detailed Obama-era blueprint for backing the Syrian Kurds in that fight, as Foreign Policy reported on March 3. 

Little has emerged about the new administration’s approach in the three weeks since. As the clock ticks, Turkey has sent forces to fight ISIS in towns west of Raqqa, in an apparent bid to wage its own campaign to capture the city. And it has continued to pressure the US to step away from the Kurds and embrace its own government as a principal anti-ISIS ally. 

Turkey has not said how it would react if the Trump administration puts its chips on the Kurds. As a separate Foreign Policy article noted, though, two factors could be in play: US military bases located in southern Turkey, close to war zones in Iraq and Syria, and a recent Turkish warming to Russia, as relations with Europe deteriorate.

Gülen, whose teaching blends moderate Islam with an emphasis on social missions of a secular sort, possesses a considerable following in Turkey. And a report from Britain's Parliament, released Saturday, concluded that individual followers of the cleric were indeed involved in the coup plot, reported Al Jazeera, though it found little evidence to suggest that the movement's leaders and organizations conspired together to overthrow Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey.

The Foreign Affairs Committee "knows too little for itself about who was responsible for the coup attempt in Turkey, or about the ‘Gulenists’ ... whom the Turkish government exclusively blames for the coup,” said the report. 

Other European officials have also cast doubt on Turkey’s claims. In an interview published last Saturday, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, Bruno Kahl, said the Turkish government had failed to convince Germany that Gülen was responsible.

"Turkey has tried to convince us on a number of different levels. But they haven't yet been successful,” Mr. Kahl told magazine Der Spiegel, before going on to attribute it to Mr. Erdoğan's desire to push out non-loyalists in the government.

"Even before July 15, the government had launched a large wave of purges. That is why elements within the military thought they should quickly launch a coup before they too were purged. But it was too late and they were purged as well,” he said.

"The consequences of the putsch that we have seen would have happened anyway, if perhaps not as deep and radical. The coup was likely just a welcome pretext."

A spokesman for Erdoğan said Kahl’s comments were proof that Germany was supporting what it refers to as the “Gülenist Terrorist Organization”, or FETO, notes the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

"It's an effort to invalidate all the information we have given them on FETO. It's a sign of their support for FETO," Ibrahim Kalin told CNN Turk. "Why are they protecting them? Because these are useful instruments for Germany to use against Turkey."

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