Trump adviser boosts Turkish hopes for better ties

Sunday 20/11/2016
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (L) jokes with retired Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn at a rally at Grand Junction Regional Airport in Colorado on October 18th, 2016. (Getty Images)

Washington - The man US President-elect Donald Trump has asked to be his national security adviser has called on Wash­ington to extradite a bitter rival of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a move that is boost­ing hopes in Ankara for better ties with the United States once the bil­lionaire businessman is in power.

Analysts said, however, the Turks could be in for a disappointment because their expectation might turn out to be wishful thinking.

Officials in Ankara are awaiting Trump’s inauguration in January because they expect him to be more sympathetic to their interests than US President Barack Obama. Pressure on government critics in Turkey, dif­ferences about Syria and a perceived reluctance by Washington to fulfil a Turkish extradition request for US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen have cooled relations between Washing­ton and Ankara.

Turkey claims that Gulen was the mastermind of the failed coup against Erdogan in July and is banking on a Trump administration to hand him over. “Our hopes with regard to the extradition have risen,” Turkish Jus­tice Minister Bekir Bozdag said.

A recent statement by Trump’s military adviser, retired US Army Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn, about Gulen is one reason why peo­ple like Bozdag are optimistic. Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intel­ligence Agency who has been asked by Trump to fill the post of national security adviser, accused Gulen of conducting a “terror network”, reflect­ing Ankara’s stance. Gulen, 76, is rejecting all accusations.

Flynn is known for his anti-Islam rhetoric; the New York Times reprinted a Twitter posting by Flynn from Feb­ruary, in which Flynn said that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL”. Flynn has also been accused of having worked for Russia Today, a Kremlin-funded television network.

Flynn publicly supported Erdogan’s position on Gulen. In an article for the Hill, a Washington news outlet, Flynn wrote that the United Sates should heed Ankara’s call to hand over the cleric. Gulen has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylva­nia since 1999 and is the leader of the Hizmet, a service movement that has hundreds of thousands of fol­lowers in Turkey and elsewhere.

“We should not provide him safe haven,” Flynn’s article, which was published on November 8th — Elec­tion Day — said about Gulen. “From Turkey’s point of view, Washington is harbouring Turkey’s Osama bin Laden.”

Echoing one of Erdogan’s central arguments against Gulen, Flynn said Gulen’s “vast global network has all the right markings to fit the descrip­tion of a dangerous sleeper terror network”. The Trump adviser added that Washington should “adjust our foreign policy to recognise Turkey as a priority”.

The Daily Caller and Politico, two other Washington news outlets, reported Flynn’s consulting company was hired by a lobbying firm based in the Netherlands that has alleged ties to the Erdogan government. The Daily Caller said Flynn’s pro-Erdogan remarks stood in contrast with ear­lier statements in which he had criticised Turkey. Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank, said Flynn was “in trou­ble” because of a perceived conflict of interest.

Ankara has been upbeat about Trump even though the president-elect made headlines during his campaign with strong anti-Muslim rhetoric. Erdogan recently said he invited Trump to visit Turkey.

Trump has said the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) would be one of his priorities. After the coup in July, Trump told the New York Times he respected Erdogan for “turning it around”. Trump’s foreign policy adviser Walid Phares was quoted by the Daily Sabah, a pro-Erdogan news­paper, as saying the president-elect was sympathetic to Turkey.

Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor at St Lawrence University in Canton, New York, said improve­ment in Turkish-American relations under Trump was possible. Trump’s foreign policy might be “transactional and based on national interests, not values”, Eissenstat said. “The focus on Iran and ISIS would also likely bring Trump closer to traditional allies, including Turkey.”

Overall, the basics of Turkish-US relations were likely to remain in place, however. “I see a honeymoon right now but I don’t expect the basic relationship to change tremendously,” Eissenstat said in an e-mail exchange.

Rubin said Erdogan, like Trump, used strong doses of populism in his career and has attracted support by presenting himself as a fighter against corrupt elites, saw “a kindred spirit” in the president-elect. Those hopes might be ill-founded, Rubin added.

“Erdogan is setting himself up for disappointment,” Rubin said. Trump would not have the power to decide whether Gulen could be extradited. “That is not the president’s call” but the judiciary’s, Rubin said. If the extradition did not happen fast, Tur­key’s enthusiasm for Trump could “sour quickly”, Rubin said.

Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish MP and a senior fellow at the Foun­dation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank, also sees potential trouble ahead. “Erdogan’s expectations about the future of Turkish-American relations are based more on wishful thinking than facts and a solid assessment,” Erdemir said. “Erdogan might be surprised to find out that he has a wider range of disagreements with Trump than with Obama,” he added. In that case, “another U-turn” by Erdogan was possible.