Visa dis­pute is an­other sign of Turkey’s drift

The long­stand­ing Wash­ing­ton-Ankara al­liance shows se­vere strain amid tit-for-tat row

Tehran Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Turkey’s post-coup purge has caught up tens of thou­sands of its cit­i­zens. The in­dis­crim­i­nate crack­down has swept aside al­most all op­po­si­tion to Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan at home. But it has earned the pres­i­dent in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion and is caus­ing in­creas­ing fric­tion with long­stand­ing al­lies. In July, Ger­many re­vised its ad­vice for tourists and its sup­port for busi­nesses in­vest­ing in Turkey, partly in re­sponse to the ar­rest of a Ger­man hu­man rights ac­tivist. The lat­est and most se­ri­ous clash is with Wash­ing­ton, which has sus­pended most visa ser­vices in Turkey after the ar­rest last week of a Turk­ish em­ployee of its Is­tan­bul con­sulate. It was the sec­ond ar­rest of a U.S. em­bassy staff mem­ber. At least a dozen U.S. cit­i­zens, in­clud­ing An­drew Brun­son, a Pres­by­te­rian min­is­ter whose cause has been taken up by Wash­ing­ton, have also been de­tained, ac­cused of links to the Gu­lenist move­ment blamed for the coup at­tempt. This treat­ment of for­eign cit­i­zens and di­plo­matic staff is clearly in­de­fen­si­ble. Ger­many’s for­eign min­is­ter has ac­cused Ankara of treat­ing the de­tainees as “hostages” to be traded for the ex­tra­di­tion of Turks who are liv­ing abroad. Er­do­gan has hinted that this is in­deed the case, sug­gest­ing that Ankara would re­lease Brun­son if Wash­ing­ton handed over the ex­iled cleric Fethul­lah Gulen.

Ne­far­i­ous med­dling

Yet such con­fronta­tion plays well with public opin­ion in Turkey, where anti-American sen­ti­ment has al­ways been strong and peo­ple are dis­posed to sus­pect Wash­ing­ton of ne­far­i­ous med­dling. More­over, the lat­est spat is a symp­tom of fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences be­tween the U.S. and Turkey that will be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to re­solve. The first of these is Turkey’s de­mand for the ex­tra­di­tion of Gulen — which will not be met, in the ab­sence of any ev­i­dence that would sat­isfy a U.S. court. The sec­ond is the U.S. de­ci­sion to ally in Syria with the Kur­dish YPG mili­tia and sup­port its am­bi­tions for re­gional au­ton­omy. The YPG has links to the sep­a­ratist Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ party in Turkey’s south-east, the main tar­get of Ankara’s own war on ter­ror. A third ir­ri­tant is the im­pend­ing U.S. trial of Reza Zarrab, a Turk­ish Ira­nian cit­i­zen ac­cused of breach­ing sanc­tions on Iran. This is po­ten­tially ex­plo­sive be­cause the case is linked to a cor­rup­tion scan­dal that nearly brought down Er­do­gan’s gov­ern­ment in 2013. The long­stand­ing U.S.-Turk­ish al­liance is un­der acute strain. Yet both sides still have a lot to lose if they al­low the lat­est dis­pute to es­ca­late — as seems pos­si­ble, after Turkey im­posed a tit-for-tat visa sus­pen­sion.

A strate­gic ally

For the U.S., Turkey re­mains a strate­gic ally and part­ner in counter-ter­ror­ism, even if the fight against ISIS is not Ankara’s pri­or­ity. It will not wish to put this in jeop­ardy. And while Er­do­gan has in­creas­ingly found it nec­es­sary to work with Rus­sia and Iran on re­gional is­sues, he will not wish to be re­liant on those al­liances. After all, Turkey’s for­tunes have al­ways rested on its close ties with the west. Europe is its main ex­port mar­ket. The rul­ing AK party elite —Er­do­gan in­cluded — of­ten send their chil­dren to American uni­ver­si­ties. That is pre­cisely why the visa sus­pen­sions will ran­kle, and why it is in ev­ery­one’s in­ter­ests to find a swift res­o­lu­tion. Even if this dis­pute blows over, though, the in­creas­ing fric­tion be­tween Turkey and its NATO al­lies is dan­ger­ous, es­pe­cially in the con­text of the U.S. re­treat from in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship and Mos­cow’s Eurasian am­bi­tions. For some years, Turkey has been drift­ing from its western moor­ings. Its ties with the EU are badly frayed. The longer this con­tin­ues, the greater the risk the drift could be­come per­ma­nent.

The long­stand­ing U.S.Turk­ish al­liance is un­der acute strain.

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