Is President Barack Obama willing to damage America’s relationship with a critical NATO ally over the fate of an elderly Muslim man living in the Poconos? Turkey is trying to find out.
Turkish leaders, already busy purging their own institutions of alleged enemies, are intensifying pressure on the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim spiritual leader Turkey blames for the recent attempted coup there. In op-eds, briefings and interviews with Western media, Turkish leaders are comparing the putsch to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, saying their desire to bring Gulen to justice is similar to America’s demand that Afghanistan hand over Osama bin Laden.
But while U.S. agency spokesmen are trying to be cautious in what they say, skepticism about Turkey’s claims that Gulen directed the plot are widespread in Washington. Last week, in comments that likely burned a few ears in Ankara, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told The Washington Post that he did not believe Turkey had yet offered enough proof to implicate Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania’s Poconos region for years…
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The Turkish media, which has come increasingly under the thumb of Erdogan, also has floated rumors that the United States was behind the coup in the first place, infuriating American leaders. Secretary of State John Kerry has sharply warned Turkish leaders that such allegations could undermine U.S.-Turkey ties, sentiments Obama has echoed. But Erdogan may view attacking the U.S. as a smart way to shore up his base domestically.
“I believe that Erdogan doesn’t actually care whether Gulen gets extradited,” said Blaise Misztal, director of the national security program at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Instead, it is useful for him both domestically and in his relations with Washington to be seen as pushing hard on this issue. Domestically, it gives him a scapegoat (and) he can use it as a red herring that distracts U.S. policymakers from the much more problematic purges he is undertaking at home.”