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2017 Marks Turbulent Year For U.S.-Turkey Relations


Turkey was once considered by the West to be a model Muslim democracy. It's been a critical U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS. And yet in 2017, Turkey has continued to become more and more authoritarian.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul for a look at how Turkey has changed this year. Hi, Peter.


SIEGEL: And for more than a year, since a failed coup attempt in July of 2016, Turkey has been firing and jailing people who are thought to be somehow involved in that. To date, how many people have been affected?

KENYON: Well, more than 160,000 people have been sacked from their jobs, another 2,700 just this past weekend. Another pair of emergency decrees came out, including a controversial provision that appears to grant immunity from prosecution to anyone who takes action against a suspected coup supporter. The ruling party is scrambling to defend that amid protests from human rights groups and others. But in all, there's more than 62,000 people facing charges here.

Why is this still going on a year and a half later? Well, officials say the threat's still there. They blame the coup on this U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, but the purge is much broader than that. I mean, it's including academics, journalists, activists. Critics are just saying it's an effort to crush political dissent in general.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Gulen, of course, denies that he was behind the coup. Earlier this year, I traveled to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania to interview him. Washington so far has not extradited him to Turkey. The Turks want him extradited. Is that still an open issue in Turkey?

KENYON: Oh, it's very much a sore point, something they still talk about. You know, there's been 80-plus boxes of what Turkey calls evidence against Gulen sitting in Washington. It has failed to sway the Justice Department to let a judge consider the extradition request. And that is far from the only complaint between the two countries. Next door, the conflict in Syria has developed in a way that now President Erdogan is complaining about an American plot against Turkey. Here's some tape of him talking earlier this month.



KENYON: Now, what he's saying here is Turkey has not conducted a plot against America, but it is quite clear now that America has a plot against us. That's his big applause line these days. He goes on to talk about a terror corridor America created in northern Syria, by which he means Kurdish fighters that are getting armed by the Americans. They're valuable fighters against ISIS, but Turkey sees them as a threat, now with American weapons.

SIEGEL: Now, Turkey has also complained about a trial going on in New York City which centers on allegations that Turkey evaded U.S. sanctions on Iran. Why is that causing such heartburn in Turkey?

KENYON: Well, this is a trial that features a Turkish-Iranian gold trader. His name's Reza Zarrab. And he cut a deal with prosecutors. He's testified about bribing Turkish officials to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, all in the name of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran. This is virtually the same set of corruption allegations that Turkish prosecutors aimed at Erdogan's government a few years ago. At the time, Erdogan said, no, no. This is Gulen again. It's that cleric. It's his fault. He called the evidence fabricated. He quashed the investigation. And now it's all coming out again, and the Turks are left to say, well, the U.S. Justice Department has been infiltrated by Gulen supporters.

SIEGEL: Economically, has it been a good year for Turkey? Or are people feeling worse in terms of their finances?

KENYON: It started quite badly. There was a terrorist attack at a nightclub. The economy suffered quite a bit. It is coming back now. And Erdogan's going from strength to strength. If he wins re-election in 2019, he's going to get even more powers. He could be in office into the 2030s.

SIEGEL: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.