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Is Hakan Fidan Seeking U.S. endorsement to Succeed Erdogan?

Rather than roll out the red carpet for Fidan or bolster his ambitions to succeed Erdogan, another tack would better defend U.S. interests, regional security, and Turkey’s own freedom and ability to thrive. If any figure deserved Global Magnitsky Act designation, it is Fidan.

Erdogan. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Erdogan. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Turkey Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan begins his Washington trip today. He will meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on March 7, 2024. The SETA Foundation will host him for a private roundtable on March 8. Fidan’s trip may be consequential, but not for the reasons either President Joe Biden or Recep Tayyip Erdogan expect.

Fidan’s Washington trip marks the first by a senior Turkish official since Turkey [Türkiye] lifted its hold on Sweden’s NATO membership.

Biden entered office critical of Erdogan. He waited three months to telephone him after taking office, and shrugged off Erdogan’s objection  His stance stood in contrast to President Barack Obama who described Erdogan as one of his closest foreign friends and even quipped that he took advice from the Turkish leader on how to raise daughters, a curious joke given skyrocketing femicide under Erdogan. President Donald Trump, too, was largely deferential to Erdogan outside a brief crisis surrounding Erdogan’s detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson. Prior to his re-election last year, Erdogan accused Biden of seeking to undermine him.

Officially, Fidan seeks to reset relations. Defense and energy cooperation are high on the agenda, as is a discussion of the current wars in Ukraine and Gaza. Fidan may also ask for an official Erdogan visit to the White House before year’s end. During his recent visit to Turkey, Secretary of State Antony Blinken floated such an offer.

Behind-the-scenes, Fidan has another agenda. Rumors swirl in Turkey about the 70-year-old Erdogan’s health. In 2006, his driver and bodyguards accidently locked him unconscious in his armored car. His epilepsy is public record as are his bouts with cancer. Amidst his election campaign last year, Erdogan fell ill during a live television interview. Lack of press freedom and acknowledgment of past health issues fans rather than tampers rumors.

Succession talk runs rife in Turkey. Conspiracy is part of Turkish political culture. Erdogan received an important boost in his ambitions to become prime minister when former American officials like Richard Perle introduced him around Washington. He therefore assumes others will seek Washington’s greenlight to rise to take Turkey’s helm.

This is one reason why Erdogan purged previous foreign ministers like Abdullah Gül and Ahmet Davotuglu after they privately floated their own names as possible replacements. Son-in-law Berat Albayrak was subsequently an odds-on favorite, though his mishandling of the economy and alleged infidelity sideline such ambitions.

Fidan is ambitious. His long tenure as Turkey’s intelligence chief also makes him untouchable; Turks say he knows too much about Erdogan, corruption, and Fidan’s own rivals. Short of his death, he will remain a fixture. He is J. Edgar Hoover on steroids. Fidan’s current portfolio as foreign minister essentially puts lipstick on a pig, softening the image of a man better known for assassination, terror support, and kidnapping than statecraft.

Rather than entertain Fidan’s ambitions, the Biden administration should derail them. Fidan is perhaps the only man in Turkey more dangerous than Erdogan himself. Since his days as a junior officer, his international sympathies aligned more with the Islamic Republic of Iran than with the West. As intelligence chief, he exposed Israeli operations against Iran’s nuclear program and provided logistical, if not financial and material support to both the Islamic State and Hamas.

Among Turks, Fidan has as ruthless a reputation. When Erdogan turned against Fethullah Gülen, a one-time ally turned rival theologian, Fidan masterminded the purge of Gülen followers in the government, military, media, and private sector. Under Fidan’s supervision as intelligence chief, Turkey kidnapped dissidents from Kosovo to Kenya to Kyrgystan. While Erdogan called the 2016 coup attempt “a gift from God” because it allowed him to crackdown on Gülenist (and other) rivals, Fidan is among only a small handful of Turkish officials who know the true story about the “Reichstag Fire” coup and the state’s role in it.

Rather than roll out the red carpet for Fidan or bolster his ambitions to succeed Erdogan, another tack would better defend U.S. interests, regional security, and Turkey’s own freedom and ability to thrive. If any figure deserved Global Magnitsky Act designation, it is Fidan. Designating him for corruption and repeated human rights abuses would signal to Turks that the United States is an ally for freedom rather than a partner to a man whose ambition is their subjugation for another two decades.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Rubin 

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and director of policy analysis at the Middle East Forum. This opinion piece reflects the author’s own personal views. 

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).