US relations with Turkey take another turn for worse

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A dispute between Turkey and the US deepened on Monday, disrupting travel plans and triggering a flurry of diplomatic activity as relations between the two Nato allies hit a new low.

The dramatic downturn was set off by the US announcement on Sunday that it was suspending the processing of non-immigrant visas in Turkey following the arrest of an employee at the American consulate. Ankara immediately retaliated with similar measures.

In the latest of a series of actions against Americans in the country and US government employees, on Monday a Turkish prosecutor issued a summons for questioning to a local employee of the US consulate in Istanbul. The move came as Ankara called on Washington to review its decision on visas.

It has underscored how Ankara’s relations with its western allies have plummeted as a government crackdown in the wake of a coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year has led to the arrest of US citizens and employees.

“No American administration, no matter how important the other country, will allow itself to be pressured like this,” said James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Turkey.

“This is a dispute over elements in the Turkish system who are deliberately targeting the US. And this has to be resolved at the level of Erdogan and [US president Donald] Trump. This is a very unusual step [the visa restrictions] and one we haven’t done even in Russia.”

Turkey first arrested a US embassy employee last year, and a dozen American citizens are being held on charges related to alleged ties to Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric Ankara blames for last year’s failed coup.

Mr Jeffrey said the visa suspension illustrated US concerns that its staffers, some of whom have had their photographs and neighbourhoods printed by pro-government newspapers, may no longer feel safe in Turkey. The US embassy in Ankara cited its lack of faith in the safety provided by Turkish authorities when it announced its decision to stop processing visas.

Mr Erdogan said the US’s decision was “upsetting” at a press conference in Kiev, adding that Turkey had responded “based on the rules of reciprocity”. Ankara also summoned the US chargé d’affaires on Monday.

In a sign of the impact on travellers, Turkish Airlines, the national carrier, said it would refund or exchange trips between the US and Turkey.

Turkey’s relations with the US have been souring for some time as Mr Erdogan has pursued a nationalist and fervently anti-western stance, particularly since surviving the failed putsch.

He is annoyed by the US’s refusal to extradite Mr Gulen, frustrated by Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish militants, and angered by the US’s detention of a Turkish-Iranian businessman for his alleged involvement in a sanctions-busting scheme to sell gold to Iran.

But analysts say that while it suits Mr Erdogan’s domestic support base to paint the west as Turkey’s enemy, the market fallout from the visa dispute illustrates the risks his policies pose to the economy.

Investors have been rattled by the diplomatic spat, with the Turkish lira falling more than 2 per cent against the dollar on Monday and the stock market tumbling almost 3 per cent.

US officials have for some time privately bristled at Mr Erdogan’s behaviour, but continued a relationship with the strongman leader on issues such as counter-terrorism. Mr Trump last month said Mr Erdogan “has become a friend of mine”.

But Washington now appears to be drawing a red line under Turkey’s behaviour.

“This is a totally unprecedented situation — in my decades as a Turkish diplomat, I cannot remember a single situation where a country has put a visa ban on Turkey, so we are in totally uncharted waters,” said Selim Kuneralp, a former Turkish ambassador to the EU.

“This situation has to be pacified very quickly, but Mr Erdogan is not in the habit of climbing down, at least not immediately.”

The families of the arrested citizens, including a Presbyterian pastor, are convinced that they are being held hostage to accelerate the extradition of Mr Gulen from Pennsylvania, and to stop the trial of the Iranian-Turkish gold trader in Manhattan for sanctions evasion.

Mr Erdogan has hinted that may be the case. He told police officers last month that he would be amenable to a possible prisoner swap. In August, he signed a decree making legal the exchange of foreigners held in Turkish prisons for Turks held abroad.

However, the Turkish president could face another rebuke from his western partners later this month.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, is pushing EU leaders to take a tougher line on Turkey at an EU summit next week, including possible cuts to hundreds of millions of euros of annual funding for Ankara’s accession bid.

The potentially divisive move underlines the chancellor’s hardening stance towards Mr Erdogan after several German citizens, including journalists and human rights workers, were detained in Ankara’s crackdown.

In spite of rising tensions between Turkey and Germany and the EU, Ms Merkel had previously sought to maintain working relations with Ankara in a bid to keep alive an immigration deal.

But German diplomats are convinced that the detained German nationals are also being held hostage as bargaining chips, with Ankara pushing for the extradition of Turkish military officials granted asylum in Germany.



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