Turkish-American relations already bad, about to get worse
November looks to be a very long and very bad month in the history of Turkish-American relations. The possible indictment of a former top Trump administration official who was hired to do lobbying work that benefited the Turkish government and the trial in New York of a Turkish- American financier with ties to elite circles in Ankara could put relations between the two governments into a tailspin.
The possible indictment involves retired US Army Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn. He served as US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser for 24 days before he was fired because he failed to disclose to Vice-President Mike Pence meetings with top Russian officials.
What is particularly worrisome, however, to the Turkish government is that special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who is investigating the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, is very interested in the lobbying work that Flynn did for another businessman with direct ties to the family of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Flynn had been hired by a company called Inovo, run by Turkish-American Ekim Alptekin, for a fee of $600,000 for 90 days of work to investigate Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish imam living in rural Pennsylvania whom Erdogan blames for the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey.
Flynn failed to acknowledge his work for Inovo until March of this year, after he had been dismissed as national security adviser. Although he said he had stopped working for Inovo at the time, on Election Day 2016, the Hill, a Washington publication, ran an opinion piece under his byline that specifically covers congressional business, accusing Gulen of being a “radical Islamist” and a “possible terrorist.”
Flynn said he showed the column to Inovo officials before it ran but Alptekin said he never saw it.
Likely of interest to Mueller and his team is a September 19, 2016, meeting between Flynn and members of his business, the Flynn Intel Group, and several top Turkish officials, including the son-in-law of Erdogan.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey, who was working at the time as an unofficial adviser to the Trump campaign, said he came in about halfway through the meeting when Flynn and the Turkish officials were talking about possibly abducting Gulen and secretly spiriting him to Turkey. Woolsey told the story to the Wall Street Journal, then to NBC and has been questioned about the event by Mueller and his investigators.
Woolsey described the meeting in the media as “brainstorming but it was brainstorming about a very serious matter that would pretty clearly be a violation of law.”
If these incidents are included in any indictment of Flynn, the involvement of top Turkish officials in a discussion about breaking American law is not going to go down well in the United States.
The trial in question is to start November 27 in New York. Reza Zarrab is a Turkish-American financier who is charged with laundering money and ignoring American sanctions on Iran. Zarrab is tied to political elites in Ankara and there has been speculation in the US media that he could testify that certain important Turkish officials, including Erdogan, knew what he was doing.
Media reports this year said Zarrab had hired former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to get the charges dropped. There were also reports that Giuliani had a quiet meeting with the parties involved to discuss a prisoner swap for Americans jailed in Turkey. In April, the New York Times reported that Giuliani attempted to talk to Trump administration officials about Zarrab.
There is word that Zarrab may be working with US authorities to mitigate possible consequences of his alleged crimes. If true, that would mean trouble for Flynn and, by extension, that might mean trouble for Trump. If Zarrab does flip, it is Erdogan and his circle in Ankara who may stand to lose the most, however.
None of this is good news for Erdogan. It is very possible that, by the end of November, he and his government officials could be painted as running a rather tawdry administration and no friend of America. Although Trump and Erdogan have appeared to get along well in previous meetings, these two cases mentioned here could push Turkish-American relations lower at a time when they are the worst since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the 1970s.