What happens if Washington refuses to extradite Fetullah Gülen?

Published 26.10.2016 00:09

Americans need to come to terms with the fact that Washington's relationship with Turkey will take a serious hit if they fail to deliver Gülen

In the failed coup's wake, many Turks wondered whether the United States played any role in the latest assault against Turkish democracy. Although dismissed as just another conspiracy theory, the allegation was firmly grounded in facts: Washington failed to publicly side with the elected government until the situation was back under control. Some of the jets operated by pro-coup soldiers had taken off from Incirlik, where U.S. troops are stationed. Finally, it didn't help that CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel called the coup plotters "the U.S. military's closest allies in the Turkish military."

Although U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Turkey to distance the Obama administration from the failed coup, his statements hardly made a dent on public opinion - mainly because Fetullah Gülen, the failed coup's mastermind, continues to reside in rural Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Washington's apparent reluctance to honor an extradition treaty with Turkey added to tensions. At this point, the Turkish public's take on the relationship between the U.S. government and the coup plotters exclusively depends on Gülen's extradition. Each time the extradition process hits a bump in the road, ordinary Turks become more convinced that Washington was indeed behind the failed coup. "If they don't send him back, it means that they are plotting another attack together," people reason in coffee shops. "The U.S. is being hostile toward Turkey."

The Americans, in turn, stress that a federal court has to rule on Turkey's extradition request. Over the past few months, Turkish and U.S. authorities have been working on the formalities. In response to U.S. requests for evidence, Turkey provided several documents establishing Gülen's links to the coup plotters. Fearing that the coup's mastermind could relocate to a country that has no extradition treaty with Turkey, the Turks asked the U.S. to arrest Gülen citing Washington's treaty obligations - which they refused to enforce.

Finally, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ traveled to Washington to meet Attorney General Loretta Lynch, provide new evidence about Gülen's complicity and request again the suspect's extradition to Turkey.

In the failed coup's initial aftermath, Turkish officials were optimistic about Washington's cooperation. "There are positive signs that Gülen will be sent back," a senior official told me in July. But it would appear that the mood is rapidly changing. In recent weeks, the Turks have been publicly critical of the United States. "The idea that Gülen won't be extradited is becoming stronger every day," Mr. Bozdağ told reporters earlier this month. "The process is being prolonged."

What would Turkey do if the Americans take their time with the extradition request and ignore their treaty obligations?

Here's how the Turks expect U.S. authorities to think about what's going on: What if Osama bin Laden had orchestrated 9/11 from Turkey? How would they have reacted if the Turks told them to wait for a court order?

Drawing parallels between Gülen's case and bin Ladin might seem excessive, but it's a helpful tool to understand what lies ahead. Still, the Turkish public's reaction remains unpredictable. At the very least, the Americans need to come to terms with the fact that Washington's relationship with Turkey will take a serious hit if they fail to deliver Gülen. To make matters worse, not only the Turks but also Gülen himself will perceive Washington's refusal to deal with Turkey's request as a sign of tacit support - which would mean he could orchestrate future attacks from his mansion. Either way, Fetullah Gülen's presence is bound to fuel additional tensions between Turkey and the United States.

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