New York courtroom drama fuels Turkish-US tensions
Washington - Turkish anger over a US District Court trial implicating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a key figure in illicit transactions benefiting Iran and an escalating row about US military support for Kurds in Syria pushed ties between the United States and Turkey to a new crisis point.
The government in Ankara said the trial in New York is part of a conspiracy aimed at stopping Turkey’s rise towards becoming a regional power. The court heard testimony from Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab about corruption in the Turkish government related to illicit gold trade with Iran.
“Turkish officials continue to see the trial as a political effort by the United States,” said Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of history at St Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington.
“My concern is that Turkey will badly miscalculate its response and create a more explosive situation than already exists,” Eissenstat wrote via e-mail.
Relations between the United States and Turkey, putative NATO allies, went through a rocky patch marked by Turkish frustration with US policies in Syria and with Washington’s reluctance to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Muslim cleric accused by Ankara of organising last year’s coup attempt. In the United States, there have been growing calls for the Trump administration to take a tougher line with Turkey after Erdogan’s bodyguards were filmed beating protesters in Washington during a visit by the Turkish president in May.
Ties appeared to be on the mend after a phone conversation between Erdogan and US President Donald Trump in November. Ankara said Trump promised to end US arms shipments to Syrian Kurds, a long-standing demand by Turkey. However, the trial in New York and a row over US weapons in Kurdish hands dampened hopes for a normalisation.
Zarrab, 34, testified in a federal trial against Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a senior manager at Halkbank, a state-run bank in Turkey that prosecutors said was involved in illegal transactions in gold that circumvented US and UN sanctions against Iran. Before the trial opened November 28, the Turkish government tried to have Zarrab freed and returned to Turkey. He has been testifying as a witness for the prosecution after reaching a plea deal that he said was the most promising way to freedom since his arrest in Florida in March 2016.
In his most explosive testimony, Zarrab said Erdogan — then prime minister — and then-Finance Minister Ali Babacan ordered the start of the illicit trade with Iran that brought Tehran billions of dollars at a time the country was blocked from international financial transactions because of its nuclear programme. Zarrab said he paid more than $60 million in bribes to Zafer Caglayan, Turkey’s economy minister at the time.
Erdogan rejected the charges and said Turkey did not breach sanctions. “We did the right thing,” he said.
Accusations about Zarrab’s role in the illegal gold trade with Iran first appeared in Turkey in late 2013, leading to the resignation of four ministers from Erdogan’s cabinet. At the time, Erdogan called the investigation a conspiracy by Gulen and had the prosecutors fired.
Ankara said the New York trial is an attempt by the Gulen movement, called the Fethullah Terror Organisation (FETO) by the Turkish government, to mount pressure on Turkey through the US court system.
“It is clear FETO has hijacked the American justice system with the Zarrab case and they are trying to use it to create a smear campaign that they hope will eventually harm Erdogan,” Ilnur Cevik, an adviser to the Turkish president, wrote in the pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim also said the goal of the New York trial was to harm Turkey.
Meanwhile, Zarrab, long presented by Ankara as an innocent man caught in the clutches of the US judiciary, is now portrayed as a potential traitor because of his willingness to testify. On December 1, Turkish prosecutors ordered the seizure of Zarrab’s assets in Turkey because of espionage charges.
Fresh accusations by the opposition in Ankara put Erdogan further on the defensive. Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said members of Erdogan’s family transferred millions of dollars to off-shore accounts to evade Turkish taxes. In response, Erdogan filed a lawsuit against Kilicdaroglu, seeking approximately $385,000 in damages.
As far as the government is concerned, it is not a coincidence that Kilicdaroglu published his accusations while Zarrab was testifying in New York. Cevik wrote that an “international slander campaign” was “launching a well-planned, two-pronged slander campaign at home and abroad.”
The heightened tension was reflected in exchanges between Turkish and US officials about Washington’s military support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-Kurdish militia seen by the United States as an important ally in the fight against the Islamic State but regarded as a terrorist group by Turkey.
Following Trump’s phone call with Erdogan, the US Defence Department declined to confirm that all military support for the YPG would stop. The United States would “collect any arms that would threaten our ally Turkey,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.
That statement drew an icy response from Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. “Others do not decide who or what threatens our national security, the Turkish Republic does,” Kalin said, Anadolu reported.