The Trump administration is working on the extradition of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen for his alleged role in an attempted coup in Turkey two years ago, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu claimed Sunday.
Cavusoglu’s comments are at odds with recent statements from the US State and Justice Departments and reflect the fractious nature of a relationship that has faced multiple flashpoints over the past three years.
Among those disputes: policy towards Syria, the arrest of an American pastor in 2016 and retaliatiory US sanctions against senior Turkish officials this year, Gulen’s presence in the US, allegations by some Turkish officials that the US was complicit in the 2016 coup attempt, and the decision by Turkey (a NATO member) to buy advanced Russian radar.
Turkey has also been irritated by what it regards as a lenient approach by the Trump administration towards Saudi Arabia in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In exile in the US for almost 20 years
In an interview at the Doha Forum on Sunday, Cavusoglu asserted that US President Donald Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 summit in Argentina this month that the US was “working on” the extradition of Gulen.
The exiled cleric, 77, has been living in a gated compound in eastern Pennsylvania after leaving Turkey in 1999. Erdogan has held Gulen responsible for the deadly attempted coup against him in 2016 – a charge Gulen has denied.
However, there’s no sign from Washington that the US is moving towards extraditing Gulen. Last month, the State Department said the US had received multiple requests from the Turkish government and continued to evaluate materials presented.
Cavusoglu also claimed the FBI had evidence that Gulen’s organization, known as FETO, “had been violating US laws, including tax fraud, visa fraud and also some other illegal activities.”
CNN has reached out to the FBI for comment.
Legal analysts say that Gulen’s lawyers would have ample grounds for challenging any extradition proceedings, including a “political offense” clause in the 1979 extradition treaty between the two countries.
Cavusoglu’s remarks, following harsh language from President Erdogan, suggest relations between Ankara and Washington are yet again headed into rough waters after a calmer spell which saw the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson in October after two years in jail and under house arrest.
Cavusoglu described Brunson as a CIA agent, but said the Gulen issue and “US support to YPG/PKK in Syria, which are posing threat to our national security,” were more serious issues.
The YPG has been Washington’s main ally on the ground in northeastern Syria against ISIS but is regarded as a terrorist group by Turkey, indistinguishable from Kurdish PKK separatists in Turkey.
Last week, with support from US airstrikes, YPG fighters drove ISIS out of the town of Hajin.
Turkey, the US and Syria
The US supply of weapons to the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG is the leading element, has long infuriated Turkey.
Cavusoglu asked Sunday: “Is America the shelter of PKK terrorist organization?….Why did they give that many weapons – more than 20,000 truckloads of weapons?”
President Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to launch another incursion into northern Syria to attack the YPG.
On Friday he said Turkey was determined “to bring peace” to what he called “the terror swamp” controlled by the YPG. He warned the US “should eradicate these terrorist organizations, or else we will do it.”
The Pentagon shot back immediately, saying that “unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as U.S. personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern.”
In his Doha comments, Cavusoglu also claimed that “President Trump is now considering to leave Syria – again.” Back in March, Trump suggested the 2,000 US forces deployed in Syria in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces might soon leave.
But they haven’t, and US officials have recently suggested they will stay for as long as necessary to stamp out ISIS, which still holds on to enclaves along the Syria-Iraq border.
Much of Erdogan’s aggressive language is aimed at his political base at home. He has often suggested a Turkish offensive inside Syria is imminent. But since the limited incursion into Afrin at the beginning of this year, the Turkish military has been more preoccupied with guarding the ceasefire in the Syrian province of Idlib.
The US and Turkey have agreed to make progress on a “roadmap” for contested parts of northern Syria by the end of the year. But the tone of the remarks by Erdogan and Cavusoglu over the past few days suggest that on a range of issues, Turkey’s patience is being sorely tried.