Hoping to ease Turkish pressure on Saudi Arabia following the death of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, the United States is exploring legal options to extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen to Turkey, according to NBC News, which cited four sources, including two unnamed senior U.S. officials. The Trump administration reportedly directed federal law enforcement agencies to look into extraditing Gulen last month, but to no avail.
The report has set off a media firestorm in Turkey, which has accused Gulen of masterminding the 2016 attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and of leading a global terrorist organization. A U.S. State Department spokesperson denied the report but stipulated that the U.S. continues to evaluate Turkey’s requests regarding the exiled cleric. Lost in the melodrama is that if the United States followed through on this extradition – which the executive branch cannot do unilaterally – problems in U.S.-Turkey relations will endure.
Power Tussles in the Middle East
U.S. and Turkish strategic objectives in the Middle East are imperfectly aligned. The United States wants to contain Iran and destroy Islamism (as embodied by the Islamic State), while Turkey aspires to become the dominant regional power and quash Kurdish separatism. In its fight against the Islamic State, the United States is partnered with a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey claims is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party terrorist group. Ankara is more interested in moderating and harnessing Islamism as currency to project Turkish soft power in the region. Turkey is also quietly looking to fill the influence vacuum left as the U.S. and its allies work to hobble Iran. These incongruent regional interests have led to tensions in relations between the U.S. and Turkey.
The notion that extraditing Gulen would assuage Turkish anger at Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi affair is nonsensical: It misunderstands Turkey’s intentions and goals. Turkey has made such a big deal out of the Saudi journalist’s murder not to champion freedom of the press, but because it is a low-cost way to weaken a key rival. By feeding the media an endless stream of leaks on the newest, grisliest details of Khashoggi’s killing, Turkey is putting pressure on both the Saudi regime and the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Why Gulen, Why Now?
Washington would like a better, stronger relationship with Turkey and sees extraditing Gulen as a goodwill gesture. In a vacuum, the exchange of a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania, even one with a Green Card, for a more cooperative Turkey would be beneficial for Washington’s Middle East strategy. But while the Trump administration might be more willing than the previous administration to offer Gulen up to Turkey, the process of extraditing him isn’t that simple – to say nothing of the political ill-will the U.S. would attract for doing so. Turkey’s extradition treaty with the United States clearly states that extradition cannot be granted “for an offense of a political character or on account of [the accused’s] political opinions.” There is a reason the Trump administration is reportedly seeking legal ways to remove Gulen – an executive order on its own will not do the trick.
Even if the Trump administration manages to navigate the legal hurdles, it would be trading Gulen only for a media cycle’s worth of plaudits. The problems in the U.S.-Turkey relationship are structural and rooted in divergent interests. Individuals like Fethullah Gulen are minor figures in a much larger story: the slow decoupling of U.S. and Turkish interests in the Middle East.