US-Turkey spat widens rift between Ankara and West
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.