US-Turkey spat widens rift between Ankara and West

October 15, 2017
Widening gap. US President Donald Trump (L) walks Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to his car following his visit to the White House in Washington, last May. (AP)

Washington - A new angry confronta­tion between Turkey and the United States is widening a serious polit­ical gap between Ankara and its traditional allies in the West at a time when the Turkish govern­ment seeks closer ties to Russia and Iran.

Observers said the row, which some call the most serious confron­tation between the two countries in decades, is unlikely to be resolved quickly. It could complicate efforts to solve a collection of other prob­lems. Outstanding issues range from US support for Kurdish rebels in Syria to Turkey’s plan to buy a missile defence system from Rus­sia and the detention of Western citizens by Turkey. A friendly visit to Tehran by Turkish President Re­cep Tayyip Erdogan also raised eye­brows in the West.

The latest US-Turkish dispute began with the arrest of a Turkish employee of the US consulate in Istanbul, which led to Washington suspending services for non-immi­grant visas by its diplomatic mis­sions in Turkey, in effect banning Turkish tourists and businessmen from travelling to the United States.

Only hours after the US decision on October 8, the Turkish Embassy in Washington responded with a statement that copied the earlier US release almost word for word and that ended visa services for US citizens.

In the meantime, a Turkish pros­ecutor ordered the detention of a second US consulate employee in Istanbul. Turkish prosecutors ac­cuse both US employees of ties to the movement of the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, seen by Turkey’s government as the driving force behind last year’s coup attempt against Erdogan. Another Turkish US consulate em­ployee had been arrested in March.

US Ambassador to Turkey John Bass said Turkish authorities were engaged in “a pursuit of venge­ance” after the coup attempt, not a search for justice. Erdogan, in a move to put the blame on Bass, ac­cused the ambassador of suspend­ing visa services on his own and asked the United States to pull him out. Erdogan said his government would not accept farewell visits by Bass, who is leaving his post after a three-year tenure to become US ambassador to Afghanistan.

The US State Department in Washington rejected Erdogan’s criticism against Bass and said the visa decision had been made in co­ordination among various govern­ment agencies including the White House. ”Our ambassadors tend to not do things unilaterally,” State Department ministry spokeswom­an Heather Nauert said.

Turkey watchers do not expect a quick return to normalcy. “I think the crisis will get worse before it gets better,” said Howard Eissen­stat, an associate professor at St Lawrence University in New York state and non-resident senior fel­low at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “Disagreements be­tween the US and Turkey were longstanding and serious; trust on both sides is very low,” Eissenstat said via e-mail.

Some observers said the dispute is the most serious bilateral confron­tation in 40 years. “The last time bilateral ties between the two coun­tries hit a crisis point like this would be late 1970s, in the aftermath of the Cyprus war,” Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank told the Cipher Brief, a website for security issues.

The new row erupted as Turkey sent troops into the neighbouring Syrian province of Idlib under an agreement with Russia. The op­eration’s goal is to establish a de-escalation zone but Turkey also wants to check a possible advance of US-backed Syrian-Kurdish re­bels. Erdogan said in a speech October 8 that Turkey would not accept a “new Kobani,” a reference to a Syrian city close to the Turkish border where Kurdish rebels beat back an attack by the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2015 with the help of US air strikes, which helped them to se­cure control over the Kobani area.

Turkey is concerned that the Kurds want to expand their influ­ence to Idlib. Erdogan said the Syr­ian Kurds were trying to create a strip of Kurdish-controlled territory from the Iraqi border in the east to the Mediterranean in the west. He said Turkey would not allow such a “corridor of terrorism.”

Erdogan also voiced frustra­tion about Washington’s refusal to extradite Gulen to Turkey and has suggested swapping Western­ers in Turkish jails for Gulen and other critics of his government liv­ing abroad. “To get those you want from us, you first have to give us those whom we want,” he said in his October 8 speech. Some Western of­ficials say Erdogan is keeping their citizens as “hostages.”

In the case of the United States, growing pressure to counter what some call Turkey’s aggres­sive stance is especially palpable in Congress, where members have successfully lobbied the Trump administration to cancel a planned deal to sell handguns to Erdogan’s bodyguards. “Congress is very frustrated with Turkey and is likely to demand further action,” Eissen­stat said.

No one expects Erdogan to com­promise, either. Given Turkey’s tradition of anti-Americanism in all political quarters, the Turkish presi­dent is likely to extract political gains from the row with the United States. “The easiest path, political­ly, for Erdogan, is to wrap himself in the flag and wait this out,” Eissen­stat said.