Standing Against ‘Strong Man’ Rule: An Opportunity for Trump with Erdogan’s Turkey

P
resident Trump’s planned meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 16 could be definitive for the career of both leaders. The controversial Turkish leader badly needs a deal to evade criminal charges, and he faces reelection in two years, but there is no assurance he would win it.

The key to understanding Erdogan’s crisis is to learn about his dozens of underhanded deals he has made over the years with the Mullah regime in Tehran.

Even while the White House mulls whether to list the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, Turkey was funneling billions in payments to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, thereby helping Iran to defeat UN sanctions, and thus acting as the middleman for Iran’s oil exports. There was everything to like for the Erdogan family, primarily the Erdogan family gold-for-oil scheme. Erdogan knowingly and willingly assisted and supported Iran and transferred funds which were used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to shore up the regime of Bashar Asaad in Syria and to further their terrorist activities in the region. Erdogan and his family members are expected to be the prime persons of interest during the trial of Mr. Rezza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian trader who is accused of being the go-between for Tehran and Erdogan. Zarrab was arrested on March 19, 2016, and has been held in a New York jail. He was joined by Mr. Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the Deputy CEO of Halkbank, on March 18, 2017, who is suspected of serving as an accomplice.

As expected, Zarrab’s attorneys have been trying to delay the hearings, which they successfully rescheduled to August 21, 2017. Zarrab and now Atilla are expected to testify after the hearings start in August, most probably against Erdogan to save themselves, and how they received direct orders, support, and backing from him to break the sanctions regime against Iran.

Erdogan has hired former New York Mayor Giuliani, and major Trump ally, as a lobbyist. Mr. Giuliani, who registered on October 2016 as an agent of the Republic of Turkey based on the foreign agents registration act of 1938, is trying to work on the Zarrab case to help Erdogan simply because Erdogan is going to be a suspect in that case. Erdogan is likely the only one with the power and authority to order to evade the Iranian sanctions and he knows very well that Zarrab is going to testify against him unless Turkey itself finds a way to save him from prison.

The Giuliani strategy appears to be one of posing his client as a bargaining chip in a forthcoming “grand deal” between President Trump and the man who plans to be Turkey’s president-for-life. Thus, Mr. Trump might be sought after to construct a deal with Erdogan in order to save Zarrab from prison and to halt the trial so that the issue does not become an international embarrassment for Erdogan. In fact, in a recent hearing on the Zarrab case, the Judge inquired of Mr. Giuliani whether he was working for Zarrab or Erdogan? Mr. Giuliani secretly visited Erdogan in February 2017. During that same hearing, the New York District Attorney’s office said that Mr. Giuliani and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey are “looking to resolve a criminal case through political means," and their actions “run the risk of politicizing the Justice Department.”

There could be a legal loophole whereby U.S. authorities could justify dropping the charges against the Turkish agents, but by all appearances a Presidential intervention, depending on how it comes about and is executed, could even be an impeachable offense. We will have to wait and see.

Erdogan is expected to ask Mr. Trump to release Zarrab and halt the trial based on his recent public statements. Doubtless, Erdogan’s leverage will include continuing the U.S. lease on the NATO Incirlik airbase and Turkey’s assistance in the fight against the Islamic State and ask Mr. Trump to simply drop the charges in return. Yet, Mr. Erdogan is in no condition to bargain: he is crippled with his own illicit baggage at the moment. This author believes the case against Zarrab should proceed unimpeded. This would send a message that the American President cares more about Rule of Law than private arrangements of diplomacy. After a conviction of Zerrab and a possible referral for proceedings at the International Criminal Court at The Hague against Erdogan, the U.S. would actually then be in a stronger position to make a deal that Erdogan likely could not refuse.

Let Trump declare that rule of law demands justice in a New York court. Cooperation with Turkey and the Turkish people should be a higher diplomatic priority and can include a trade deal to Turkey’s benefit. The quid pro quo is that Turkey makes good faith concessions, such as releasing most of its political prisoners including Pastor Andrew Brunson, uphold free speech, honor the rule of law, reestablish freedom of the press, and take steps to seriously eradicate Salafist jihadist terrorist cells in Anatolia. Understandably, this may be asking or hoping for too much: the President was one of the few leaders to congratulate Mr. Erdogan for dubiously winning his referendum on April 16, since by all accounts it was unfairly administered and so far has seemed to admire ‘strong man’ autocratic leadership all over the world. Regardless of his personal preference in terms of global leadership style, it is in the interests of America and the global community that Erdogan’s gradual slide to dominant and eternal autocracy is undermined and countermanded. This small relatively unknown court case in New York could be a big step in starting that process.

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University. He is also senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He formerly served as a professor and the chair of the sociology department at Harran University in Turkey. He also served as the chief of counterterrorism and operations department of the Turkish National Police in Sanliurfa between 2010 and 2013. He is the co-author of the newly released book ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @ahmetsyayla

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