The U.S.-Turkish alliance is in serious trouble — and could still get worse. This past week, the United States suspended non-immigrant visa services in Turkey, prompting Ankara to retaliate by ending its program of issuing visas to Americans traveling directly from the United States to Turkey.
The ostensible reasons for the U.S. decision was the Turkish government’s arrest of Metin Topuz, a “foreign service national” who works at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. Yet, it would be wrong to think that the targeting of U.S. Embassy employees was the only reason for U.S. action.
In reality, Washington has debated for months how best to respond to Turkish authoritarianism and the sustained Turkish policy of imprisoning Americans and American-affiliated personnel to try and compel the Department of Justice to extradite Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Imam that Ankara blames for planning the failed July coup attempt, and to retaliate for the New York Southern District’s ongoing case against Reza Zarab and a hodgepodge of Turkish officials for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
For many in Turkey, the idea that the U.S. was involved — or helped plan — the failed July coup attempt is dogma. The Turkish government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has done nothing to disabuse the population of this widespread belief.
Through veiled statements to sympathetic media outlets, and then reinforced by columnists that have a direct line to the highest levels of government, the message of U.S. involvement is reinforced with conspiracy theories and expressions of regret about the lack of American support to Turkey.
For the AKP, the narrative is politically useful: It deflects from the government’s own culpability in empowering the Gulenist movement and helps to reinforce the government’s position that it was deceived by the secretive group.
This narrative is false but helps to absolve policymakers of responsibility for the events on July 15 and builds on the idea that the AKP is the victim of a global conspiracy to weaken Turkey because of, among other things, jealousy at how Turkey has developed in the past 15 or so years.
This narrative is particularly difficult for the U.S. to challenge, without betraying its own values. The Turkish government uses media cutouts to amplify its anti-American messages and reinforce this broader political message.
The U.S. cannot seriously challenge journalists in Turkey, lest give credence to the government’s long-standing contention that journalists can be targeted for their media affiliations and words written. The U.S. can raise this issue with Turkish officials, but the government can then hide behind the false notion that there is a free press and freedom of expression in Turkey.
Turkish policymakers eagerly jump on any perceived American or European backtracking on freedom of expression issues, using these events to draw false comparisons to the domestic situation and to deflect international condemnation of Turkish illiberalism.
The challenge for U.S. policymakers is how to use diplomatic tools to change Turkish policy. The two countries are still allies, committed to defending the other in the event of an attack on a NATO partner. Turkish troops are in Afghanistan. American forces are based in Turkey to strike the Islamic State.
The U.S. does not have the flexibility to follow the Russian model, wherein Moscow used effective economic and military pressure to force changes in Turkish policies after Ankara downed a Russian jet in November 2015.
Russia was able to use coercion effectively because it is not a Turkish ally — and its military forces were engaged in a proxy-battle against Turkish interests in Syria. Ankara lost its battle with Moscow, forcing a general rethink of Russian policy and the start of a “rapprochement” that continues to this day. Washington can not follow this strategy.
The U.S., instead, has to balance coercion with alliance management. This is no easy feat. Yet, this is also why the imposition of visa restrictions represents such a fundamental shift in United States’ Turkey policy.
Up until last week, the de facto American approach to crises with Turkey was to stay quiet, given concerns that any reaction would simply feed the AKP’s anti-American narrative. The recent visa-related action suggests that this paradigm has shifted and, like U.S. allies in Europe, the policy response will now be to use more sticks to pressure Turkish policy changes.
The United States’ demands of Turkey to resolve this crisis are miniscule. Washington is demanding that Ankara follow basic diplomatic protocol and stop targeting U.S. and U.S.-affiliated people in Turkey. This seems like low-hanging fruit given the other issues negatively impacting the bilateral relationship. The ball is now in Turkey’s court to simply do what internal protocol demands.
The way out of this current crisis is easy to foresee: Ankara releases people it has arrested or, at the very least, adheres more closely to Turkey’s own laws when these people move through the legal process.
Turkey pretends to “turn a new page” when a new ambassador shows up in Ankara, perhaps in combination with some movement on American detainees in Turkey. Yet, if one widens the aperture, the drivers of anti-Americanism in Turkey — and the corresponding changes in how Americans thinks about Turkey — have yet to be truly addressed.
The U.S.-Turkish alliance is likely to survive. Ankara is a NATO member and NATO is too big to fail. Yet, absent serious changes, the roots of tensions are likely to persist long after Americans and Turks can travel more easily to each other’s countries.
Aaron Stein is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.