Un­der­stand­ing the cur­rent US-Turk­ish diplo­matic stand­off


By sus­pend­ing visa ser­vices in

Turkey, Wash­ing­ton is sig­nal­ing that it can — and is will­ing to — ap­ply tan­gi­ble pres­sure on Ankara to en­sure it ad­heres to in­ter­na­tional norms and prac­tices.

AMID es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions between Wash­ing­ton and Py­ongyang over North Korea’s nu­clear and in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram, and un­cer­tainty over whether Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will scrap the Iran nu­clear deal over Tehran’s al­leged fail­ure to ad­here to it, the US is fac­ing a diplo­matic cri­sis with its long­stand­ing ally Turkey.

The row for­mally erupted over a US de­ci­sion to sus­pend visa ser­vices in Turkey, which pre­dictably drew swift con­dem­na­tion and es­ca­la­tory mea­sures from Ankara. But the cri­sis should not come as a sur­prise, as Ankara has be­come in­creas­ingly er­ratic in its for­eign pol­icy while step­ping up its sup­pres­sion of dis­sent at home, in­clud­ing the re­cent string of ar­rests of Turk­ish ci­ti­zens work­ing for the US con­sulates in Is­tan­bul and Adana.

Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties also ar­rested Amer­i­can pas­tor An­drew Brun­son, who ran a church in the western city of Izmir, for his al­leged ties to the Is­lamist Gulen move­ment, whose founder Fethul­lah Gulen is ac­cused of or­ches­trat­ing the un­suc­cess­ful coup at­tempt against Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan in 2016. US-Turk­ish cit­i­zen Serkan Golge, a NASA sci­en­tist, has also been im­pris­oned for his al­leged sup­port for Gulen and role in the coup at­tempt.

Mean­while in Au­gust, a grand jury in Wash­ing­ton re­turned in­dict­ments against 15 Turk­ish se­cu­rity of­fi­cials and four other in­di­vid­u­als on charges of at­tack­ing pro­test­ers dur­ing an in­ci­dent out­side the Turk­ish am­bas­sador’s res­i­dence in May. The in­ci­dent took place dur­ing Er­do­gan’s visit to the White House.

Ankara may have mis­cal­cu­lated that Trump, who is en­gulfed in US do­mes­tic tur­moil over his con­tro­ver­sial style of gov­ern­ing, would ac­cept its overt ob­jec­tive to use Brun­son as a pawn in a high-stakes diplo­matic gam­bit to se­cure Gulen’s ex­tra­di­tion.

By sus­pend­ing visa ser­vices in Turkey, Wash­ing­ton is sig­nal­ing that it can — and is will­ing to — ap­ply tan­gi­ble pres­sure on Ankara to en­sure it ad­heres to in­ter­na­tional norms and prac­tices, and that it will not tol­er­ate the ar­bi­trary de­ten­tion of its ci­ti­zens and ha­rass­ment of its con­sular staff.

If Turkey fails to en­gage in de-es­ca­la­tory mea­sures, it is con­ceiv­able that US in­tel­li­gence and mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion on Syria could be re­duced. This would be con­sid­ered an in­cre­men­tal es­ca­la­tion by Wash­ing­ton, and could run in par­al­lel with the sus­pen­sion of fu­ture bi­lat­eral mil­i­tary ex­er­cises. Turkey will surely get the mes­sage.

Er­do­gan has in­sulted the lead­ers of France, the Nether­lands, Ger­many, Aus­tria, Greece and other coun­tries, while threat­en­ing to use the Turkey-EU mi­gra­tion deal of 2016 as lever­age for his po­lit­i­cal crack­down at home.

Wash­ing­ton has so far cho­sen to pub­licly stay out of the var­i­ous Turk­ish-gen­er­ated con­tro­ver­sies. But it is pos­si­ble that the lat­est string of Turk­ish de­ten­tions of Amer­i­cans and ha­rass­ment of US con­sular em­ploy­ees is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

This de­spite Er­do­gan’s ap­par­ent con­clu­sion that Turkey’s NATO mem­ber­ship, and Wash­ing­ton’s long­stand­ing ob­jec­tive to pre­serve its strate­gic al­liance with Ankara, would im­mu­nize him against US diplo­matic pres­sure and cu­mu­la­tive anger.

Western lead­ers have long been care­ful to bal­ance “con­struc­tive crit­i­cism” with frus­tra­tion, if not out­right anger, over his bla­tant dis­re­gard for in­ter­na­tional norms and prac­tices. But the lat­est Amer­i­can re­sponse could be the be­gin­ning of a joint and co­or­di­nated US-EU diplo­matic pres­sure cam­paign against Turkey.

Com­ment­ing on what led to the cur­rent US-Turk­ish stand­off, Michael Ru­bin, an ex­pert on Turk­ish pol­i­tics at the Wash­ing­ton-based Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, said: “Turkey coasted on its rep­u­ta­tion as an ally for more than a decade, and both US and Euro­pean di­plo­mats were happy to en­able the il­lu­sion.

“Tak­ing Amer­i­cans hostage, beat­ing up pro­tes­tors in Wash­ing­ton and New York, and hav­ing top-level aides seek kick­backs and con­spire to evade US law has a cu­mu­la­tive price. There comes a time when diplo­matic de­nial is no longer pos­si­ble. Er­do­gan’s ac­tions have con­se­quences, and if he wants to push Turkey down the path of iso­la­tion and fi­nan­cial ruin, so be it. But his sup­port­ers shouldn’t worry — they can al­ways visit Venezuela.”

In the short run, Er­do­gan will seek to calm the diplo­matic stand­off, or at the very least pre­vent it from es­ca­lat­ing into a full-blown cri­sis whose out­come would be un­pre­dictable. Mean­while, ob­servers in Wash­ing­ton, Brus­sels and else­where will closely ex­am­ine where the Turk­ish-Rus­sian re­la­tion­ship may be head­ing.

If ten­sions with Wash­ing­ton do not sub­side quickly — and there are no in­di­ca­tions that they will as long as US ci­ti­zens are ar­bi­trar­ily de­tained — ex­pect Er­do­gan to show up in Moscow, where he will tout his friend­ship with Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

Never mind that Turkey shot down a Rus­sian fighter jet in 2015 over com­pet­ing in­ter­ests in Syria, and nearly brought NATO to the brink of war with Moscow — by tick­ing off Trump, Er­do­gan is in fast need of new friends.

Putin has hardly for­got­ten about the deadly jet in­ci­dent, but he is known for his prag­matic — if not out­right op­por­tunis­tic — ap­proach to rolling back US global in­ter­ests. The world just be­came a lit­tle more dan­ger­ous.

QSig­urd Neubauer is a Mid­dle East an­a­lyst and columnist based in Wash­ing­ton. Twit­ter: @SigiMideast

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