Relations between Turkey and the United States have hit a new low point with tit-for-tat visa suspensions after the arrest of a U.S. embassy employee.
“The last time bilateral ties between the two countries hit a crisis point like this would be late 1970s, in the aftermath of the Cyprus war, when the U.S. had slapped some arms embargoes and sanctions on Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute.
The U.S. response shows patience with Ankara has run out after a series of Turkish arrests of U.S. citizens and consular employees, and reflects President Donald Trump’s promise to reassert American power on the world stage.
The crisis has already hit Turkish stocks and led to a swift devaluation of the Turkish Lira, which will add pressure on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to come to some sort of compromise.
This diplomatic crisis is the result of the arrest of Metin Topuz, a Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, on unclear charges. This arrest followed the detention and harassment of several other U.S. diplomatic employees by Turkish security forces.
In response, the United States suspended all non-immigrant visa services to Turks on Sunday, stating that “recent events…have forced the United States government to reassess the commitment of the government of Turkey to the security of U.S. mission facilities and personnel.”
Ankara quickly responded in kind on Monday morning, posting a nearly identical statement and shutting down its online visa service for U.S. citizens.
U.S.-Turkish relations have fluctuated from strained to cordial since the attempted military coup against Erdogan last year, and American refusal to extradite the cleric Erdogan blames for the coup: exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Prior to the coup, “Erdogan played a masterful game of balancing Turkey’s ties to its Western allies – including NATO and the U.S. – while indulging in foreign policy endeavors with unconventional and unsavory actors like Iran and Russia,” Cagaptay said. “After the coup, that foreign policy balancing game is not there anymore.”
President Barack Obama viewed the Turkish government’s extensive purge of suspected conspirators after the 2016 coup with worry and distrust. The crackdown led to the arrest, detention, or suspension of more than 100,000 Turkish military officers, including officers the U.S. military had worked with for years, as well as government officials, academics, journalists, and dissidents. European allies like Germany also voiced their criticism, which has contributed to the deterioration of relations between Turkey and the European Union.
On the Turkish side, the post-coup purge has also been accompanied by a striking spike in anti-American sentiment, driven in large part by the divisive figure of Fethullah Gulen. Originally an ally of Erdogan’s, Gulen leads an international moderate Islamist movement, which at one point enjoyed social influence in Turkey through a wide network of affiliated schools and academics, and deep institutional sway through followers in key positions in the police and judiciary.
The Erdogan government accuses Gulen of orchestrating the attempted coup and has arrested or purged suspected “Gulenists” from public life. Yet the cleric himself remains safely ensconced in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, despite Turkish requests for his extradition. The reason for this is primarily legal.
“The problem,” explains former ambassador to Turkey and Cipher Brief Expert James Jeffrey, “is that America can’t respond – even if it wanted to – on the Gulen case because these cases require judicial review and judicial action. The executive branch doesn’t control the judiciary.” Nevertheless, the slow progress has helped inspire a slew of anti-American conspiracy theories in Turkey that have deeply affected Turkish perceptions of the U.S. both at the popular and political level.
“There were hopes…that relations with Turkey would improve after [President Donald] Trump took office,” said former Turkish Cypriot diplomat to the United States, Bulent Aliriza.
Trump had consistently praised Erdogan as “a key ally in the terrorism fight” and he was one of the first world leaders to call the Turkish president and congratulate him on his victory in a hotly contested constitutional referendum this April, which most Western observers criticized for the sweeping new powers it granted Erdogan.
However, this crisis demonstrates that “clearly there is a malaise in the relationship that goes deeper than tone,” Aliriza said.
The second critical split in U.S.-Turkish relations can be traced back to Washington and Ankara’s divergent policy toward Syria. Today, that divergence centers around U.S. support for the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militant organization which forms the military backbone of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). To the United States, the YPG and the SDF are critical local allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria, near to the final liberation of ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa. To Ankara, however, the YPG is little more than a branch of Turkey’s own militant Kurdish organization, the PKK, which both Turkey and the U.S. view as a terrorist group. For Erdogan, the YPG’s effective control over almost the entire Syrian border with Turkey – supported by embedded U.S. troops – is an unacceptable existential threat.
Underlining this diplomatic drift away from the United States and the West, Turkey – a NATO ally – signed a highly unusual agreement to purchase Russian S-400 SAM air defense systems just last month.
The American visa move after these multiple provocations presents a choice for Erdogan: step down the pressure; or drive a further wedge into the relationship with the U.S.
“As Turkey’s sole decision maker, Erdogan’s attitude will be decisive in resolving the face-off,” said former Turkish Parliamentarian, Aykan Erdemir. “As we have seen with earlier bilateral crises with Russia and Israel, Erdogan can choose to double down with firebrand rhetoric, or make a U-turn to deescalate the crisis.”
Fritz Lodge is a Middle East analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.