“We do not need America,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week in a remarkable display of defiance against Turkey’s chief ally since the World War II. The brewing crisis in relations between Turkey and the U.S. is baffling — as if Ankara and Washington are not traditional allies in NATO and elsewhere.
The U.S. and Turkey mutually suspended non-immigrant visa services on October 8 in a stunning culmination of a polarizing feud between the two longtime allies. The suspension of visa services, many analysts agree, is a proxy fight in a larger battle.
Suspending visa services was a decisive demonstration of growing frustration by the U.S., which patiently held its breath for months until one of its longtime consulate employees, Metin Topuz, was put behind bars on charges of attempting to overthrow the government.
The Turkish government, including Mr. Erdogan, insisted on placing the blame squarely on U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass. In a bruising smear campaign, the pro-government media blasted the outgoing ambassador, who is headed to Afghanistan, for single-handedly hurting the relationship. Mr. Erdogan even said Ankara no longer considers him as an envoy representing the U.S.
Deep ruptures in U.S.-Turkey relations ranging from Syria to imprisoned Americans who ended up in Turkish jails after the failed 2016 coup attempt continue to further damage the ties.
“The U.S. suspending visas is seen as a response to now episodic diplomatic and military divergences,” Adham Sahloul, a researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told The Globe Post.
Since the attempted coup, Mr. Erdogan has executed a statewide crackdown on supporters of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, arresting over 50,000 people on conspiracy charges. Mr. Topuz is also accused of being in touch with Gulenist prosecutors and police chiefs, who carried out twin corruption investigations targeting Mr. Erdogan’s inner circle. Mr. Gulen’s followers are accused of being part of last summer’s failed coup attempt. He denies any involvement.
The U.S. consulate has stated that Washington was “deeply disturbed” by the arrest of Mr. Topuz, adding that the allegations against him are “completely without merit.”
Ilter Turan, a professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, told The Globe Post that U.S.-Turkey relations have deteriorated “on many fronts.”
“When relations are deteriorating it becomes easier to take such dramatic measures. While there is not a direct causation, these other elements create an environment for such dramatic measures,” he said.
Foreign nationals have been increasingly targeted by Turkish authorities and arrested since the attempted-coup. At present, about a dozen U.S. citizens are in Turkish prisons, including American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been in captivity for over year.
Mr. Brunson’s case has captured the attention of President Donald J. Trump, who personally asked Mr. Erdogan and publicly called for his expedited release back in May. However, his calls for the pastor’s release fell on deaf ears. President Erdogan even suggested that the U.S. should swap Mr. Gulen for Mr. Brunson, publicly confirming that the pastor is being kept as a hostage.
“That U.S. will not or cannot turn over Gulen to Turkey is another sore point,” Mr. Turan said. Washington has repeatedly refused to extradite the cleric and stated that Ankara had not provided enough evidence to prove his links to the attempted coup.
The U.S. decision to put Reza Zarrab, a prominent Turkish-Iranian gold trader, and businessman, on trial on charges of money-laundering and fraud has put another strain on the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
It is such an overriding priority for Mr. Erdogan that he spent half of his 90-minute meeting with former Vice President Joe Biden to advocate for the release of Mr. Zarrab, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius said. He suggested that the arrest of Mr. Topuz might have been arranged in an attempt by Turkish authorities to gain leverage in talks for Mr. Zarrab’s release.
But perhaps the biggest factor at play behind the failing relations between the U.S. and Turkey is Syria.
Washington and Ankara have long been at odds over how to move forward in Syria. Turkey has been displeased with the ongoing U.S. support for Kurdish fighters, known as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or the YPG.
YPG members, along with other Kurdish elements, have been on the frontlines of the battle against ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria, and largely supported U.S. strategic interests in the region.
“We are on the opposite sides when it comes to arming YPG members,” Mr. Turan said. Turkey believes that YPG members are linked to the Kurdish separatists known as the PKK. The Turkish government sees them as an existential threat.
“Turkey will likely not forget the strategic neglect with President [Barack] Obama and now President Trump continuing to pursue Islamic State-centric Syria and Iraq policies while the exacerbating the local conflicts that spawned IS by enabling the ambitions of Iran, Assad, Russia, and Kurdish separatists at the expense of stability and human lives,” Mr. Sahloul said.
In what some observers billed as a PR disaster, Kurdish militants who liberated self-declared capital of ISIS, Raqqa, unfurled large portrait of Abdullah Ocalan, jailed PKK leader. Mr. Erdogan, who long claimed that Syrian Democratic Forces is another offshoot of the PKK and seemed vindicated in his suspicions, criticized Western nations on Friday for the incident. “How is the U.S. going to explain this?” Mr. Erdogan asked rhetorically.
SDF replaces ISIS flag in Raqqa with its own as well as with the YPG’s flag and images of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK. pic.twitter.com/QS9oqVrBza
— omar albam (@sariasdfgh) October 19, 2017
The Pentagon told The Globe Post that the U.S. condemns the display of PKK leader’s poster during the liberation of Raqqa. “The United States continues to support our NATO Ally Turkey in its multi-decade struggle against the PKK and recognizes the loss of life Turkey has suffered in that conflict,” a Pentagon spokesperson said.
The situation has only been exacerbated by Turkey’s participation in a series of deals with Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime.
Washington has been displeased with a recent arms deal between Ankara and Moscow. Turkey agreed to buy surface-to-air missile systems from Russia in what was seen as a significant pivot away from its traditional NATO allies.
Despite these issues, Mr. Sahloul does not think that diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Turkey can remain tense in the long term. Turkey is central to U.S. foreign interests. According to him, a practical partnership between the two countries is necessary.
“The U.S. and Turkey have more in common than they have in differences, and their shared history and interests will outlive any diplomatic skirmishes,” Mr. Sahloul said.
Talks on the visa crisis between Turkey and the U.S. are “going well”, according to a recent statement from Mr. Erdogan’s spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin.
A U.S. State Department official also told reporters on Wednesday that U.S.-Turkey talks in Ankara on visa issues were “productive” and substantial progress was made.
However, on Thursday, Mr. Erdogan questioned strategic partnership with the U.S. in a speech.
“Voices closer to the matter believe that this issue will be resolved soon, there’s no way to forecast this from here, given that this is just the latest slide in U.S.-Turkey relations,” Mr. Sahloul concluded.