The seemingly unending cycle of drama in the Turkey-U.S. relationship just went into overdrive. On Sunday, the U.S. stopped issuing visas in Turkey. “This was not a decision we took lightly, and it’s a decision we took with great sadness,” wrote John Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey. “We realize that the suspension of visa services will inconvenience people. We hope it will not last long, but at this time we can’t predict how long it will take to resolve this matter. The duration will be a function of ongoing discussions between our two governments about the reasons for the detention of our local staff members and the Turkish Government’s commitment to protecting our facilities and our personnel here in Turkey. ”
The matter is this:
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, blames the U.S.-based, self-exiled, Turkish-born Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers — now deemed a terrorist organization, FETO — as the culprit of the failed putsch of July 15, 2016. He demands that the U.S. extradite Gulen to Turkey, but so far, that request has gone unanswered.
So Turkey took the following three steps.
First, in October 2016 it arrested American pastor Andrew Brunson, who ran a church in the Aegean city of Izmir, for being a member of FETO. Erdogan had planned to swap him for Gulen last month, when he met Trump on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly — to no avail. But they smiled big for the cameras, and Trump praised Erdogan as “a friend” and said “he’s getting very high marks.”
Second, in March, Turkey arrested Hamza Ulucay, a Turkish employee at the U.S. consulate in the southern city of Adana on charges of supporting the terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party — or PKK. Like Brunson, he still remains behind bars.
Third, last week Turkey arrested Metin Topuz, a U.S. Consulate employee in Istanbul, on charges of espionage and being a FETO member.
In response to these three arrests, the U.S. has restricted 80 million people by suspending visa services in Turkey.
“It is like a Western movie,” Faruk Logoglu, one of Turkey’s former ambassadors to the United States, told halimiz. “They may have questions about the evidence to do these arrests; they may have doubts about a fair trial in Turkey. We also have our own concerns about the judiciary. But this decision punishes all 80 million and this is disproportionate and unacceptable.”
As if that weren’t awkward enough, Turkey also stopped issuing visas to Americans — even at the border. And this tit-for-tat approach is making this crisis unique.
Yet Erdogan seems to have found a friend in Trump, who acts like him: bullying, rude and reckless. Erdogan overplayed his hand, Trump recognized his bluff and people got screwed in between — some found themselves behind bars, some missed flights – losing medical appointments or enrolling in school or losing business opportunities.
If Erdogan and Trump can’t reach a mutually agreeable solution in this scandalous crisis, the next step will be withdrawing ambassadors. Bass is already on the way out this week after finishing his four-year tour of duty in Turkey, and it could take time for a new U.S. ambassador to arrive in Ankara. Turkey’s ambassador is also close completing his service in Washington. If it really comes to that kind of standoff, it will keep Western visitors away from Turkey. That will cause our economy to suffer, and will eventually push Turkey away from the Western alliance.
Coincidentally, this also comes after the Sept. 25 referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the majority voted in favor of independence — and after the Turkish military crossed on Monday into the northern Syrian province of Idlib to take control of the area. Russia, Iran and Turkey reached an agreement in Astana, Kazakhstan, last May to set “de-escalation zones” in an effort to resolve the six-year-long Syrian conflict. These countries seem to have brought their forces together to show that the territorial integrity of both Syria and Iraq are of tantamount importance, and they believe the U.S. has paved the way for an independent Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan.
All that aside, Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. is not limited to the Kurdish issue or the FETO matter. It has width and depth, and neither country could easily give up on the other. However, when leaders’ behavior is unpredictable, anything becomes a possibility. One can only hope that common sense prevails and that neither side aims to use their people against one other.