US, Turkey Plunge into Diplomatic Row with Tough Choices Ahead

visa suspensions erdogan turkey diplomatic row andrew brunson
U.S. Embassy in Ankara. Photo: Reuters

Turkey’s relations with NATO ally United States have deteriorated further after the two countries plunged into a new depth of diplomatic row following mutual visa suspensions. The Turkish side attempted to defuse tension by urging the U.S. administration to review its decision.

On Sunday, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara moved to suspend all non-immigrant visa applications in Turkey, saying that recent events “have forced the United States government to reassess the commitment of the government of Turkey to the security of US mission facilities and personnel.”

The high-profile saga came to a boiling point last week when Turkish prosecutors remanded a U.S. consulate communications officer, Metin Topuz, over charges of terrorism and political espionage. It elicited a swift rebuke from the Embassy, which regarded the charges as baseless.

The U.S. visa suspension prompted a counter-response from Ankara, with the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., retaliating in a tit-for-tat fashion.

“This decision, besides all, is upsetting,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a press conference along with his Ukrainian counterpart in Kiev on Monday.

“Turkey is a state of law. We are not a tribe. And we are not a tribal state either,” the Turkish president said.

‘Ambassador’s Personal Decision’

Turkish Foreign Ministry on Monday summoned Charge d’Affaires Philip Kosnett to press for the reversal of the embassy decision. U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass, however, said it was not a decision the U.S. took lightly and it was taken “with great sadness.”

“We hope it will not last long, but at this time we can’t predict how long it will take to resolve this matter,” he emphasized. Mr. Bass has found himself in the crosshairs of the Turkish government and media as a flurry of attacks directed against him.

Mr. Erdogan, other Turkish officials and the pro-government media made sure to put the blame squarely on the ambassador and avoided criticizing the Trump administration. Mr. Erdogan urged the U.S. administration to fire him and said Ankara no longer considers him as an envoy representing the U.S.

When Mr. Erdogan singled out Mr. Bass as a responsible person for the decision, the U.S. State Department confronted that narrative.

“This was coordinated with the State Department, it was coordinated with the White House and coordinated with the NSC,” State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said during the daily press briefing on Tuesday.

She noted that the decision was taken after consultations between the ambassador and the U.S. administration.

The dispute took a new turn on Monday after state-run Anadolu Agency reported that another consulate employee was summoned by Istanbul prosecutor’s office for questioning. “An employee at the U.S. Consulate Istanbul, N.M.C., who does not have diplomatic immunity, has been summoned to our chief public prosecutor’s office [in Istanbul] for his testimony,” prosecutor’s office said in a statement, according to Anadolu news agency. His wife, son, and daughter were detained over alleged ties to the Gulen movement.

Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul, however, later denied the report.

The recent diplomatic showdown represented the culmination of long-simmering disputes in relations tested by vexing problems over the U.S. alignment with Syrian Kurds in Syria, Ankara’s unflinching demand for extradition of a U.S.-based Turkish cleric and court indictment by U.S. prosecutors against President Erdogan’s bodyguards over brawl during his May visit to D.C.

“The U.S. had to do something visible. Turkey is pursuing a hostage-taking policy, and the U.S. had to respond,” Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow for National Security and International Policy at American Progress, told The Globe Post.

“Unfortunately, the action we took may disproportionately affect those who most support us,” he said, referring to possible side-effects of the suspension for ordinary Turks who might have been friendly to the U.S. “But I’m afraid this standoff could last for a while if we are linking it to the release of our employees, because I don’t think that Erdogan will back down on these arrests, however outrageous they may be,” he said, expressing skepticism whether the policy would budge Mr. Erdogan’s decision.

Turkish authorities presented a humanitarian aspect of the ban to make a compelling argument to force the U.S. to back down. The Turkish Foreign Ministry raised the issue of victimization of Turkish citizens with an all-embracing visa suspension.

“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,” Mr. Bass said, addressing the question of how long the suspension would remain in place.

New Low In Relations

Though Turkey-U.S. ties faced setbacks and squabbles over a number of thorny issues over the past year, it never descended into this kind of tit-for-tat diplomatic tug of war in recent memory.

The Erdogan administration has increasingly lost its friends in the West. Calls for radical re-assessment of Turkey’s place in the Western institutions have only grown louder.

“Erdogan is again acting rashly and poking the eye of the U.S., which has been Turkey’s most steadfast ally for six decades. This is not the first nor the most egregious insult meted out by the Turkish strongman,” John Tirman, Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist at MIT Center for International Studies, told The Globe Post.

But it should prompt Washington to reconsider the relationship, which has deteriorated due entirely to Mr. Erdogan’s actions, he said. 

He even went further to call for the expulsion of Turkey from NATO. “Among the steps to be taken is throwing Turkey out of NATO. Its membership in other European institutions needs to be examined as well.”

Sunday’s diplomatic squabble coincided with the first anniversary of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson’s imprisonment. The issue remains as a major source of discord between two NATO allies. The Trump administration’s efforts to secure his release have yielded no result to date. 

Mr. Erdogan even linked his release to extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who has lived in a self-imposed exile in the U.S. since 1999 and who is accused by the Turkish authorities of orchestrating the July 2016 putsch. Mr. Gulen denies any involvement in the coup.

The U.S. has so far refused to heed the Turkish demand, citing lack of evidence linking the cleric to the coup attempt.

U.S.-Turkey Crisis Has History

“The current crisis is a long time in the making,” Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President at D.C.-based Foundation For Defense of Democracies, said in an emailed statement to The Globe Post.

“Turkey is holding several Western nationals on dubious charges, including Pastor Andrew Brunson,” he said, giving a context that shaped the evolution of the current predicament.

The descent into bitter row comes as a stark contradiction to display of comity that recently occurred at a joint press conference held by President Donald J. Trump and Mr. Erdogan three weeks ago in New York City.

Mr. Trump lavishly praised his relationship with the Turkish leader, saying that “I think now we’re as close as we’ve ever been.” But how much the chemistry that emerged between the two leaders would translate into real action to resolve the current unsettling crisis remains a puzzle.

Mr. Schanzer appears skeptical over such a prospect. He noted that the engagement between the two leaders would unquestionably help matters. But, he argued, the only way this conflict truly de-escalates is through changes in Turkish policy. “I question whether Erdogan is amenable to this.”

Still, the U.S. would not want a further escalation of a dispute with a NATO ally. According to Mr. Schanzer, the U.S. will certainly try to de-escalate the tension. A spat with Turkey is decidedly inconvenient at the moment, given other foreign policy challenges the U.S. faces, such as North Korea and Iran, he noted.

Mr. Schanzer believes that the problem of Turkey under Mr. Erdogan will continue to fester and is likely to flare up increasingly often in the months and years ahead. Echoing Mr. Tirman, he said that “difficult choices lay ahead for both the U.S. and NATO.”

“Turkey is no longer a reliable ally. This current diplomatic spat is just one indicator.”