Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan is coming to Washington, DC, on May 16 loaded for bear.
He has an ambitious agenda and apparently feels he can achieve it all
because he holds “trump” cards against the President of the United
Erdogan and his proxies have publicly said
they want to convince the United States to jettison its budding
alliance with the Syrian Democratic Union (PYD) and its armed wing, the
People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish group that has become the
tip of the spear in the fight against ISIS in Syria.
point, they will encounter resistance from the U.S. military, which sent
a U.S. U.S. Marines Stryker group into northern Syria recently to serve as a buffer
between Turkish and Kurdish forces after the Turkish air force
conducted air strikes that killed twenty of the U.S.-backed Kurdish
Erdogan can be expected once again to trot out
“evidence” that the Syrian Kurds and their Iranian allies, known as
PJAK, are puppets of the PKK, the Kurdish group that waged war against
the Turkish state for 15 years before entering into negotiations in
Both the United States and the European Union consider
the PKK a terrorist organization, while recognizing that the Syrian and
Iranian Kurds have separate command structures. Neither the YPG nor PJAK
has joined the PKK in military operations inside Turkey.
Erdogan has more on his agenda than Kurds and Syria. He is also seeking
the extradition to Turkey of former ally-turned-arch political rival,
Islamist cleric Fetullah Gulen, who fled Turkey for Pennsylvania in 1999.
Erdogan accuses Gulen of having masterminded the failed July 2016 coup
against him, a claim the cleric denies. Critics of the Turkish
president who are not allied with Gulen have questioned the authenticity of the coup, citing the professionalism of previous coups by the Turkish military and the amateur nature of last year’s attempt.
This won’t be the first time Erdogan has demanded that the U.S.
extradite Gulen, whom he has taken to calling the head of “FETO” – the
Fethullah Terrorist Organization.
Since the botched coup, Erdogan and his strongmen have conducted sweeping purges
of the military, police, criminal justice and even education system,
firing more than 120,000 suspected Gulen supporters and arresting more
than 40,000. Erdogan called the failed coup a “gift from God.” Indeed.
Many of those arrested have been accused of being “terrorists” because
they were caught in possession of U.S. one dollar bills, which Erdogan
claims Gulen supporters use as a “secret signal” to identify themselves
to one other.
Among these victims was the 19-year old son
of a U.S.-based academic, Dr. Ahmet Yayla, who until 2014 served as
police chief in Sanliurfa, a city along the Syrian border, where he was
ordered to provide security to wounded ISIS terrorists so they could
receive treatment in Turkish hospitals.
Since moving to the
United States in 2015, Dr. Yayla, who says he has no affiliation with
Gulen or the Gulenist movement, has written scathing exposes of how
Erdogan helped funnel arms
to ISIS and “deliberately turned a blind eye to the Islamic State’s use
of his nation as a staging ground for attacks.” Dr. Yayla has also
accused Erdogan and his family of benefitting from the sale of ISIS oil,
citing hacked emails
from the account of Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who is
Turkey’s Minister of energy and natural resources. He believes his son
was arrested in an attempt to silence him.
The third item on Erdogan’s agenda is by far the most troubling, and could pose a real challenge to President Trump.
He wants the President to order the U.S. Attorney in the Southern
District of New York to drop charges against a Turkish-Iranian national,
Reza Zarrab, who is accused
of a vast money-laundering scheme to violate U.S. sanctions against
Iran that allegedly involved huge bribes paid to top Turkish officials,
including members of Erdogan’s own family.
Zarrab, also known
as Riza Sarraf, was arrested while attempting to take his family to
Disneyworld in March 2016. Despite offers to post a $10 million bond and
to stay under house arrest in a luxury apartment in Manhattan, Zarrab
remains in custody. His jury trial is scheduled to begin on August 16.
According to federal prosecutors, Zarrab offered his money-laundering
services to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in a 2011 letter,
and worked in tandem with Babak Zanjani, who had deep ties to Iran’s
Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The United States Treasury identified Zanjani
and his Sorinet Group in 2013 as the principle operator of a vast
money-laundering scheme that helped Iran to sell upwards of $200 billion
of oil in violation of international sanctions. Zarrab and his Turkish
political partners, reportedly including Erdogan himself, were
instrumental in laundering the proceeds back to Iran through U.S. and
Prosecutors in Turkey arrested Zarrab on December 17, 2013, on
corruption charges involving bribes to four members of then Prime
Minister Erdogan’s cabinet, including his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak.
Erdogan struck back by firing the prosecutors, police investigators
and judges involved in the probe, accusing them of plotting against him
on behalf of Fethullah Gulen.
Two months later, five audio
tapes of alleged phone conversations between Erdogan and his son, Bilal,
on the day of Zarrab’s arrest, show why Erdogan panicked. In the tapes,
posted on line, Erdogan can be heard instructing his son to remove $1 billion in cash from his home and the homes of family members before the police arrived.
That money reportedly had been paid to Erdogan and his family by
Zarrab in exchange for allowing Zarrab to launder Iranian oil money
through Turkish banks and to buy gold he subsequently shipped to Iran
via the United Arab Emirates. Erdogan has not denied that he and his son
are speaking on the tapes, but claims they have been doctored.
For a few months, it was touch and go for Erdogan, with many
commentators suggesting the corruption scandal would sweep him from
office. But as his purges expanded and he closed down all opposition
media, he managed instead to consolidate power. By March 2014, he
ordered Zarrab released from jail and even commended him as a prominent
job-creator and philanthropist. (Among Zarrab’s charitable gifts was a $4.65 million contribution to a charity run by Erdogan’s wife, Ermine, according to U.S. court filings.)
President Erdogan’s close ties to the Iranian regime have often been
downplayed in the media and among Middle East “experts,” just as they
have downplayed his ties to ISIS.
But Reza Zarrab knows the
truth. Erdogan desperately wants to keep him from appearing at a public
trial in New York, where prosecutors could very well convince him to
tell the truth about the payoffs to Erdogan and the money-laundering
scheme in exchange for a reduction of the 75-year prison term they are
Here’s where it gets personal for President Trump.
In March, Zarrab hired former New York Mayor and Trump confidant Rudy
Giuliani onto his legal team, along with former U.S. Attorney General
The two traveled to Turkey to confer with
President Erdogan about the case and spoke with senior U.S. officials as
well, arguing that Zarrab was a non-violent offender who deserved
They attempted to keep their involvement in the case
confidential until Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard outed them
in public court filings, accusing the two of seeking to “muddy the
waters” by downplaying the gravity of the charges against their client.
“The entities that benefited from this alleged scheme include the
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and agents or affiliates of that
entity, Iranian banks that have been sanctioned for their role in
providing financing for Iran’s nuclear programs, and Iranian commercial
airlines,” Lockard said.
Giuliani’s lawfirm, Greenberg Traurig, is a registered lobbyist for
the government of Turkey, giving rise to complaints from other members
of Zarrab’s legal team that he might represent Turkey’s interests before
their client’s. Mukasey’s lawfirm, Debevoise & Plimpton, is
representing Iranian government-related defendants in a separate civil
forfeiture case being prosecuted by Lockard, while Mukasey’s son has
been mentioned as a possible replacement for Preet Bharara, who was
fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month.
Erdogan is not known for his subtlety. In the days following the July
2016 attempted coup, he ordered Interior Ministry troops to surround the
NATO airbase at Incirlik, which the U.S. Air Force uses for operations
against ISIS, reportedly in retaliation for what he claimed was U.S.
involvement in the coup.
He will surely remind the U.S.
president that Turkey still controls Incirlik. He may also suggest that
should President Trump not agree to his demands, the Turkish government
might penalize the Trump Organization, which is building luxury residential and office towers in the heart of Istanbul.
While Erdogan might be tempted by this crude attempt at blackmail, he has far more to lose than Donald Trump.
President Trump has consistently said that he puts the national
interest before his personal or business interests. Standing up to
Erdogan, even taking a hit from Erdogan’s thugs, would only enhance his
reputation with American voters, whereas Reza Zarrab’s revelations could
sink Erdogan for good.
As for Incirlik, many have suggested
already that the United States should build replacement air bases around
the region, starting in Iraqi Kurdistan. If Turkey does not take their
NATO commitments seriously, then we should reconsider Turkey’s
membership in NATO.