Turkey’s post-coup purge has caught up tens of thousands of its citizens. The indiscriminate crackdown has swept aside almost all opposition to Recep Tayyip Erdogan at home. But it has earned the president international condemnation and is causing increasing friction with longstanding allies.
In July, Germany revised its advice for tourists and its support for businesses investing in Turkey, partly in response to the arrest of a German human rights activist. The latest and most serious clash is with Washington, which has suspended most visa services in Turkey after the arrest last week of a Turkish employee of its Istanbul consulate. It was the second arrest of a US embassy staff member. At least a dozen US citizens, including Andrew Brunson, a presbyterian minister whose cause has been taken up by Washington, have also been detained, accused of links to the Gulenist movement blamed for the coup attempt.
This treatment of foreign citizens and diplomatic staff is clearly indefensible. Germany’s foreign minister has accused Ankara of treating the detainees as “hostages” to be traded for the extradition of Turks who are living abroad. Mr Erdogan has hinted that this is indeed the case, suggesting that Ankara would release Mr Brunson if Washington handed over the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Yet such confrontation plays well with public opinion in Turkey, where anti-American sentiment has always been strong and people are disposed to suspect Washington of nefarious meddling. Moreover, the latest spat is a symptom of fundamental differences between the US and Turkey that will be extremely difficult to resolve.
The first of these is Turkey’s demand for the extradition of Mr Gulen — which will not be met, in the absence of any evidence that would satisfy a US court. The second is the US decision to ally in Syria with the Kurdish YPG militia and support its ambitions for regional autonomy. The YPG has links to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ party in Turkey’s south-east, the main target of Ankara’s own war on terror.
A third irritant is the impending US trial of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish Iranian citizen accused of breaching sanctions on Iran. This is potentially explosive because the case is linked to a corruption scandal that nearly brought down Mr Erdogan’s government in 2013.
The longstanding US-Turkish alliance is under acute strain. Yet both sides still have a lot to lose if they allow the latest dispute to escalate — as seems possible, after Turkey imposed a tit-for-tat visa suspension.
For the US, Turkey remains a strategic ally and partner in counter-terrorism, even if the fight against Isis is not Ankara’s priority. It will not wish to put this in jeopardy. And while Mr Erdogan has increasingly found it necessary to work with Russia and Iran on regional issues, he will not wish to be reliant on those alliances.
After all, Turkey’s fortunes have always rested on its close ties with the west. Europe is its main export market. The ruling AK party elite — Mr Erdogan included — often send their children to American universities. That is precisely why the visa suspensions will rankle, and why it is in everyone’s interests to find a swift resolution.
Even if this dispute blows over, though, the increasing friction between Turkey and its Nato allies is dangerous, especially in the context of the US retreat from international leadership and Moscow’s Eurasian ambitions. For some years, Turkey has been drifting from its western moorings. Its ties with the EU are badly frayed. The longer this continues, the greater the risk the drift could become permanent.