Why have Turkey and the US suspended visa services?


Turkey has cancelled visa applications for US citizens in a tit-for-tat action against Washington that sent the Turkish lira tumbling against the dollar and exposed deep rifts between the two Nato allies.

What triggered the spat?

Ostensibly it was the arrest last week of a Turkish employee at the US consulate in Istanbul and reports in the pro-government Turkish media accusing him of ties to Fethullah Gulen, an Islamist preacher that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for masterminding last year’s failed coup attempt. He was the second US embassy employee to be detained this year.

Why has Turkey been arresting US citizens and employees?

Since the failed putsch in July 2016, authorities have arrested tens of thousands of Turks it accuses of having links to the Gulenist movement in a sweeping crackdown. But the dragnet has included at least a dozen US citizens, some with dual Turkish-US nationalities.

US diplomats believe the American citizens are being held for political reasons and are unlikely to receive a fair trial, according to officials in Turkey and in Washington.

One of those arrested was Andrew Brunson, an American pastor. His case has come to the attention of US vice-president Mike Pence and cast a shadow over US-Turkish relations that span counterterrorism, shared Nato responsibilities and the fight against Isis.

The US has condemned the arrests as part of a move to apply pressure on Washington to extradite Mr Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Ankara also wants US authorities to free Turkish businessmen, including Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader, arrested in connection with an alleged US sanctions busting scheme that involved trading gold with Iran. The scandal was the result of a huge corruption probe in Turkey in 2013 that came close to toppling Mr Erdogan’s government, but was ultimately quashed by the president with accusations of fake evidence, and the fact that the prosecutors had ties to Mr Gulen. Mr Zarrab was freed in Turkey, then arrested years later in the US, which used much of the same evidence to indict him. The Turkish president has said he believes US authorities have “ulterior motives” for prosecuting the former gold trader.

Have relations always been difficult?

Relations between Turkey and the US have been complicated for years, with vibrant co-operation in some areas and a stream of public spats in others. As well as the Zarrab and Gulen cases, US support for a Kurdish militia, known as YPG, in Syria has angered Turkey.

Ankara considers the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ party that has waged a more than three-decade insurgency against Turkey. It launched a military offensive in Syria last year, in part to create a buffer zone and push the Kurdish militia back from the Syrian-Turkish border region. But Washington views the Syrian Kurds as its most effective ally in Syria in the fight against Isis.

The US is also wary of its Nato partner’s move to purchase S-400 missiles from Russia.

Another spat erupted in May after video emerged showing Turkish security officials attacking unarmed protesters in Washington when Mr Erdogan visited the US capital to hold his first meeting with US President Donald Trump.

But the tit-for-tat action on visas marks a new low in relations. As the bans stand, Turks, whether they are students, tourists or businessmen, will not be able to apply for new visas to visit the US. In 2016, more than 113,000 new non-immigrant visas were granted.

What happens now?

With the lira and Turkish stocks tumbling, Mr Erdogan will be under pressure to act to ensure this rapid deterioration does not further weaken the Turkish economy, worsening a current account deficit and stoking inflation. Interest rates are already high: the effective cost of funding from the central bank is well over 11 per cent.

The central bank may be forced to raise rates or dip into its diminished dollar reserves. A governor at the bank told Reuters on Monday that forex liquidity was adequate and no immediate intervention was needed. Mr Erdogan’s response will be important; he avoided cameras en route to a meeting in Ukraine. Mr Trump recently described the Turkish president as a friend, but the state department’s action indicates that the US is losing patience with Mr Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule.

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