The U.S. blamed Turkey for instigating the latest crisis between the two countries and said a resolution will depend on how quickly officials explain why two Turkish employees at American outposts in the country were detained this year.
While the White House and State Department stayed silent, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass issued a video statement on YouTube saying he hasn’t been told why a Turkish employee working for the U.S. was arrested last week, the second such arrest this year. The embassy stopped issuing non-immigrant visas in Turkey, a NATO ally and key trading partner, in a move that roiled markets and prompted a retaliatory response by Turkish authorities.
“This was not a decision we took lightly and it’s a decision we took with great sadness,” Bass, a career diplomat, said in his 4 1/2-minute video. “We hope it will not last long, but at this time we can’t predict how long it will take to resolve this matter.”
Bass’s unusual statement — and the lack of comment from Washington — was the latest unexpected twist in a relationship that seemed poised for an upgrade when Trump took office in January, after deteriorating ties during the Obama administration. As recently as last month at the United Nations, Trump said Erdogan was “becoming a friend of mine” and that “frankly, he’s getting high marks.”
Below the surface, however, ties remain frayed following a failed coup against Erdogan in July 2016. The Turkish government blames the attempted putsch on Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric and former Erdogan ally living in Pennsylvania who the U.S. has refused to extradite, citing a lack of evidence.
The two countries have also feuded over U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, which Ankara says are aligned with domestic terrorists, and American charges that a former Turkish economy minister and a state bank conspired to help Iran launder hundreds of millions of dollars through the U.S. financial system.
Ambassador Bass said the employee arrested last week works in an office “devoted to strengthening law enforcement cooperation with Turkish authorities and ensuring the security of Americans and Turkish citizens.” He blamed Turkish officials he didn’t name for leaking information about allegations against the employee to local media without providing that same information or any evidence to the employee’s lawyer or U.S. authorities.
“This arrest has raised questions about whether the goal of some officials is to disrupt the long-standing cooperation between Turkey and the United States,” said Bass, who Trump has tapped as the next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. “We don’t know if these arrests are singular events, or if we should expect other Turkish staff members to be arrested for simply speaking to Turkish government officials or the wider Turkish public in the course of their duties.”
The lira dropped 2.4 percent to 3.7033 against the dollar on Monday, the most since April, after earlier plunging as much as 6.6 percent. The benchmark Borsa Istanbul 100 Index of stocks declined 2.7 percent.
Erdogan criticized the U.S. visa decision during a news conference Monday in Kiev, Ukraine, saying “the implementation of a such a decision by the U.S. ambassador in Ankara is very saddening. Turkey is a state of law, not a tribal state.”
In recent months, Erdogan has increased coordination with Russia and Iran amid deepening tensions with the U.S., and Turkey recently agreed to buy a Russian missile-defense system that isn’t compatible with the arsenals of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners.
Despite those disagreements, the latest developments took long-time observers of the U.S.-Turkey relationship by surprise. Continued efforts by Trump and Erdogan to forge an alliance may still keep the crisis from spinning out of control, said Blaise Misztal, a Turkey analyst who directs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Program in Washington.
There is a “real disconnect between the on-the-ground relationship and the relationship as it’s described by leaders on both sides and that makes it hard to escalate too much further,” Misztal said in an interview. “The danger is continued escalation beyond just visas to other aspects of the relationship, but I think that’s unlikely because of the weird nature of this current flare-up.”
More than 37,000 U.S. citizens traveled to Turkey in 2016, about 1.7 percent of the total and down from 88,301 in 2015, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Turkey has been attracting fewer visitors since 2014 amid concerns about terrorism, regional instability and the failed coup. The U.S. tourist office doesn’t break out the number of Turkish visitors on its website.
“This being the Trump administration, anything can happen at any time, so the president can decide, alright we’ve made our point, we’ll back down on this one,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Nevertheless, “it’s pretty serious,” he added. “At this point the ball is in the Turkish court.”