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10 Feb, 2014 12:00

​Erdogan vs Gulenists: Drawing Turkey away from independent foreign policy

​Erdogan vs Gulenists: Drawing Turkey away from independent foreign policy

At first glance, the Turkish scandals that emerged in December 2013 appear to be cases of ordinary corruption, but under the surface a power struggle is unfolding.

Unlike the Gezi Park protests, this confrontation is among those in power and not merely the Turkish government and a cross-section of opposition movements.

The two antagonist camps are, in one corner, the Gulenists, which are the acolytes of the influential US-based scholar, Fethullah Gulen (the preacher “beyond the ocean”) inside the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s state institutions, and the followers of Prime Minister Erdogan and what can be referred to as the National View portion of the AKP in the other corner. Iran appears to have been caught in the middle of the crossfire between two rival Turkish cliques due to the involvement of Halkbank.

Vendetta, persecuting AKP corruption, or regime change operations?

Tensions between the Gulenists and the Erdogan camp and his allies had been building for some time, but the divorce between them revealed itself in full when the Turkish government announced in November 2013 that it was going to close Turkish private preparatory schools and tutorial halls. This was an attack on the Gulenists, designed to weaken or de-fang them, because they run numerous prep schools in Turkey and around the world as lucrative sources of revenue, as well as for the recruitment and indoctrination of new members. While an earlier scandal involving secret peace talks with Kurdish separatists in 2012 saw a battle between the two camps, the closure of the preparatory schools was the point of no return. Erdogan’s decision transformed the silent internal power struggle between the two camps into an open war.

The break up between the two sides after the resignation of MP, Idris Bal, from the AKP on November 30, in protest to the shutting of the private schools. Bal’s resignation was followed by the resignation of MP Hakan Sukur, an outright Gulenist, on December 16. Sukur even publicly admitted that he consulted Fethullah Gulen himself about his decision. MP Hasan Hami Yildirim, also associated with the Gulenist movement, would resign on December 31, 2013.

The day after the withdrawal of Sukur from the AKP, criminal investigations were officially launched against AKP members and their families that included charges of money laundering, construction fraud, bribery, and the illegal sale of Turkish citizenship. The groundwork for these investigations was secretly prepared in 2012, the same year as the battle over the Kurdish peace talks. Three anti-corruption investigations resulted in a major scandal for the Turkish government. Gulenist or not, the chief prosecutor was Zekeriya Oz, responsible earlier for the Ergenekon investigation against members of the Turkish military that were allegedly planning a coup d’état against the AKP. The McCarthy-style prosecutions led by Oz were witch hunts that had the unbending support and praise of the AKP government, which branded Oz a national hero.

A demonstrator carries a shoe box, a symbol of the corruption scandal after police found $4.5 million secreted in shoe boxes in the home of the chief executive of Turkish state-owned Halkbank, during an anti-corruption protest in Ankara on January 11, 2014. (AFP Photo / Adem Altan)

Infamous photos of shoe boxes full of millions of dollars found inside the CEO of Halkbank’s home were leaked to the media for publication by the Turkish investigators. Prime Minister Erdogan’s reaction was harsh. He intervened directly in the investigations, creating tensions with the police and judiciary. The AKP government was outraged that they were not consulted before any investigation was initiated. All police and law enforcement units were ordered to henceforth inform their superiors, and essentially the government about all their investigations for approval.

Hundreds of police and law enforcement agents, including key police chiefs in Istanbul and throughout Turkey, were dismissed and the AKP put forward a plan to restructure the Turkish judicial system. Hereafter, by government order, journalists were no longer allowed to enter Turkish police departments. Eventually, the Turkish government would remove five thousand individuals from their posts, including from the Telecommunications Directorate (TIB) and the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK). The justifications for the moves were that the AKP was purging state institutions of the Gulenist cult, which was creating a state within the state and collaborating with foreign interests.

Erdogan also struck out at Oz, revealing that Oz himself was involved in corruption and took multiple lavish vacations around the world annually. Indicating the depth of the inner struggle, the media also began receiving humiliating tapes of Prime Minister Erdogan’s private telephone conversations, which painted a picture of a cover-up attempt on his part.

Graft probes aimed at hurting Turkish ties with Iran?

There has been a corresponding and less explosive scandal in Iran, with an uproar in the Iranian Parliament and many MPs questioning the government. Tehran also arrested the Iranian billionaire, Babak Zanjani, who is the boss of Reza Sarraf/Zarrab in Turkey. Zanjani was commissioned by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government to circumvent the US-led sanctions against Iran. The Halkbank Scandal put Zanjani’s operations under closer scrutiny by the authorities in Tehran. After the graft scandal in Turkey became public, Iranian authorities probably realized that Zanjani and his associates were pocketing much more money than they were entitled to for the covert trade that they were responsible for facilitating on behalf of Tehran. Zanjani was consequently charged by Iranian police for embezzling approximately two billion dollars from government funds.

The Iranian media has not really joined the dots together, or discussed the connections between Zanjani and Halkbank in depth. Understandably, their government and its partners do not want to delve too deeply into how they have used Turkey and other countries, including China, to internationally circumvent the US-led sanctions regime. Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi has even asked, while speaking to the Mehr News Agency, that the Iranian media not cover corruption stories like the one involving Zanjani, because of the effects it could have on investment in the Iranian economy.

What it is important to be aware of is that the graft scandal in Turkey has erupted at a time when the Turkish government has been trying to silently distance itself from the neo-Ottoman policies that it has adopted since the Arab Spring erupted in 2011. While Ankara’s political ties with Tehran and Moscow were steadily degenerating as a result of the AKP government’s stillborn neo-Ottoman stance to carve out a sphere of influence for Turkey in the Arab World, Turkish officials were becoming more and more painfully aware that Turkish ties with Iran and Russia are indispensable.

Ankara had optimistically expected that the Syrian government would collapse and then would mend its ties with Iran and Russia afterwards, but it slowly realized that the neo-Ottoman regional order it originally envisaged was unfeasible. As a result, in the final months of 2013, the Turkish government appeared to soften its stance against Damascus, at least in its public rhetoric, and began to embark on a path to rebuild and repair its ties to Iran and Russia. There have also been numerous reports suggesting that Ankara has asked Tehran in closed door talks to repair Turkish ties with the Syrian government.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran on January 29, 2014. (AFP Photo / HO / Iranian Supreme Leader's Website)

In the context of moving closer towards Iran and Russia, Prime Minister Erdogan asked President Vladimir Putin and Russian officials, during a press conference held in St. Petersburg in November 2013, to let Turkey enter the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member and promised that Turkey would forget any idea of joining the EU if it entered SCO. This was not the first time that Erdogan had talked about Turkey being admitted into the SCO, the last time he mentioned it was during an interview on Turkey’s Kanal 24 in January 2013. This time, however, he also asked that Turkey join the Eurasian Union that Russia and its sister-republic allies, Kazakhstan and Belarus, are forming.

About two months after the St. Petersburg press conference with Putin, Erdogan went as far as to denounce and backtrack on the AKP’s neo-Ottoman policy, while visiting Japan in January 2014. He declared in the presence of his Japanese hosts that Ankara had no ambitions for Turkey to become either a regional or global power. This is quite a different position from the one that Foreign Minister Davutoglu and Erdogan had espoused in 2011.

The Turks additionally called for the Iranians to participate at the second international peace conference on Syria in Switzerland and hosted Iran at a January-17 conference in Sanliurfa for all the countries bordering Syria. Ankara also began the work to bridge its position with the Iranian and Russian positions on Syria by coordinating joint positions on certain issues before Geneva II was held in Montreux. Furthermore, Prime Minister Erdogan’s visited Tehran late in January, despite a warning from Washington, and forged common ground on Syria.

US and Israeli meddling inside Turkey?

The Turkish government is blaming the US and Israel for its battle with the Gulenists. This is a repeat of the accusations that the AKP government leveled about the foreign hand that was responsible for the Gezi Park protests. These claims can be dismissed as diversion tactics, but they do hold some weight.

Catching wind of how Iran was working through Turkey to circumvent sanctions, the US government banned gold exports to Iran in July 2013. This may be the same time that investigators inside Turkey discovered that Halkbank’s CEO was receiving money from Sarraf/Zarrab, which means that there is a possibility that they may have been informed by US channels or vice-versa; they may have informed the US government through the Gulenist movement or other channels. The US and Israel were also upset that Halkbank was going to be used by India to make New Delhi’s debt and oil payments to Iran.

Prime Minister Erdogan’s cohorts report that there is an international conspiracy to ruin Turkey, while the Gulenist faction claims that Erdogan and his allies are lying to hide their corrupt practices. A much smaller faction of the media has reported that the government corruption has been exposed by the Gulenists, due to political motivations and the objective of regime change.

A Turkish protester holds up a placard with pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and the United States-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen reading "We will cast them down" during a demonstration against corruption in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul on December 25, 2013. (AFP Photo / Bulent Kilic)

The Gulenists have been portrayed as, knowingly or unknowingly, being US and Israeli agents, working as pawns for the interests of Washington and Tel Aviv. The Gulenist role in revealing Halkbank’s services to Tehran gives room for entertaining this notion, because it has hurt the interests of Erdogan and Iran. There are also other factors that give credibility to the view that the Gulenists are tied to the US and Israel. These factors are: the opposition of Fethullah Gulen to Turkish efforts to send an aid flotilla to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in 2010; Gulen’s recognition of Israel as the proper authority in Gaza in line with his pro-Israeli stance; and Gulen’s aggressive and unfathomable opposition to a peaceful settlement in Turkish/Northern Kurdistan or southeastern Turkey.

Regardless of the nature of their ties to Washington and Tel Aviv, the Gulenists have worked to further US and Israeli objectives through their demands in Kurdistan. Nor is it a coincidence that the same people in the US and Israel that talk about dividing Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran also talk about dividing Turkey. The military option in Turkish/Northern Kurdistan that the Gulenists have desired would have negative effects on Turkey and the bordering countries. It would destabilize Turkey, polarize Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, and amplify the ethnic cleavages between Turks and Kurds. It short, it would catalyze the Kurds throughout the region into mobilizing against their governments and divide Turkey, which is a scenario that benefits the US and Israel.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Fethullah Gulen’s movement is some wholesome organization. It is a shadowy organization with lots of money and assets around the world, and no one knows how these were initially procured. It could very well be funded by the CIA as a means of gaining influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The movement has also had its schools in other places closed. The aged Gulen himself may not even have any control over the organization. Turkish government officials additionally have refrained from mentioning it by name too, instead consistently using cryptic language about it. The purges show that there is real fear amongst them.

The corruption probes that were launched by the Gulenist have nothing to do with upholding the law. The probes are a form of retaliation by Gulen in the power struggle with Prime Minister Erdogan and his allies. The Gulenists never had any problems with government corruption earlier. They have been a party to it and unvaryingly looked the other way during previous scandals, such as the Deniz Feneri scandal, which the same judiciary was blocked from investigating.

It should not be forgotten, either, that Erdogan himself is the one who allowed the Gulenists to gain access to important positions and offices. He had no problem with this as long as they were partners. Nor should it be forgotten that his government has also been intimately tied to the US and Israel, both openly and clandestinely.

Fethullah Gulen (AFP Photo / Zaman Daily / Selahattin Sevi)

Jinni of uncertainty out of the bottle?

The grassroots and rank and file of the AKP are being split. There are increasing groans from within about Prime Minister Erdogan. Tensions reportedly exist between him and President Abdullah Gul, too. One of the ministers that resigned, Erdogan Bayraktar, even said that Erdogan was fully aware of everything that was happening and has defiantly called for him to step down from the premiership.

A revolt within the AKP against Erdogan and his political lieutenants could eventually come as the AKP’s political strength further erodes. The Turkish municipal elections due to be held in March 2014 will stoke these flames.

Possibly in a sign of the AKP’s panic about the upcoming mayoral elections, Turkish officials have ordered that the assets of Republican People’s Party (CHP) main opposition candidate in Istanbul be confiscated due to a bad loan dating back to 1998. The move has been seen as a way to insure that the AKP incumbent in Istanbul keeps his position.

There are probably still remnants of the Gulenists within the AKP that have not withdrawn from the governing party, which will probably show their faces with time, and perhaps when an AKP revolt against Erdogan and his allies is in full swing.

Turkey has also been damaged in multiple ways. The Turkish lira’s values have fallen and speculation has hurt the economy further, not to mention that the key person from the US Treasury responsible for managing the US-led sanctions regime against Iran arrived in Turkey to discuss Halkbank.

The Turkish judiciary now sits at the heart of the internal struggle with the government purges. While the AKP claims that it is trying to remove subversive elements, its critics maintain it is erasing the independence of the judiciary by officially subordinating the courts to the Turkish government.

The upper echelons of the Turkish military are now bravely making statements in the political arena too. Retrials for the convicted members of the Turkish military have been asked for. There are legitimate fears in the Turkish intelligentsia about the return of military tutelage.

The question that arises from all this is whether the fighting between Erdogan and the Gulenist has been designed to prevent Turkey, corrupt or not, from upholding an independent foreign policy that would allow Ankara to shift towards the orbits of Iran and Russia.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.