US-Turkey relations in crisis

Recep Tayyip Erdogan © Rex Features
Recep Tayyip Erdogan: adrift from Western moorings

Only last month US president Donald Trump declared that his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan had “become a friend”, say Benjamin Harvey and Brendan Scott on Bloomberg. No longer, apparently, now that there has been a tit-for-tat freeze on non-immigrant visas between the United States and Turkey.

Following the arrest of Metin Topuz, a Turkish US consulate employee, for alleged links to Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Muslim leader whom Erdogan believes is the mastermind behind a failed coup attempt last year, the US ambassador John Bass said Washington had seen no supporting evidence and was concerned for the safety of US personnel. The embassy declared it was suspending visa services for Turks while it assessed Turkey’s commitment to its diplomatic security.

Ankara reciprocated immediately with a ban that mirrored America’s almost word for word, “sending the lira tumbling” by 6% against the dollar. Although this diplomatic spat doesn’t “bode well” for either country, an early victim will be Turkey’s tourism industry. In the year prior to the coup, the number of US visitors stood at 88,000. Fewer than half that number visited last year. 

Relations between the two countries have been fraying for the past decade, says Philip Gordon, former US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, in the Financial Times. A decade ago, Turkey was “one of the brightest spots on the foreign-policy horizon”: a majority Muslim country with a “dynamic, popular leader” intent on reforming its economy and “expanding” the freedom of the press.

It was keen to join the EU and “cooperate closely” with the US in the Middle East. That vision is now in tatters. The recent “flare-up” began with Erdogan’s purges after the July 2016 coup attempt, which have now led to the imprisonment of more than 50,000 Turks.

Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism – which culminated in a referendum that “eviscerated legislative and judicial checks on his rule” – has had a “direct impact on the US”, adds Zeeshan Aleem on Vox. A dozen Americans have been arrested in Turkey on charges of being linked to the coup, and Ankara has been trying to use them as bargaining chips to force the US to extradite Gulen. Divergent positions over the war in Syria have also been a source of growing tension.

Whereas Washington has aligned itself with a Kurdish-dominated force to fight against Isis, Turkey perceives the Kurds as a threat. The Syrian Kurds are affiliated with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist organisation that Ankara believes poses an “existential threat to the future of the country”. 

There is a lot at stake for both countries if they allow this dispute to escalate, say Mehul Srivastava and Sam Fleming in the FT. Despite their differing positions over Isis, Turkey remains a “strategic ally and partner in counter-terrorism” and, as Sara Elizabeth Williams notes in The Daily Telegraph, Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base is home to a US military installation critical to the fight against Isis. The US won’t want to jeopardise this.

As for Erdogan, while he may have found it necessary to work with Russia and Iran on regional issues, “he will not wish to rely on them”. Turkey’s fortunes have long rested on “close ties with the West”. Europe is its main export market and the ruling AK party elite send their children to American universities, and will therefore be personally affected by the visa freeze.

More broadly, the “increasing friction between Turkey and its Nato allies is dangerous, especially in the context of the US retreat from international leadership and Moscow’s Eurasian ambitions”. Turkey has been “drifting from its Western moorings” for some years. “The longer this goes on, the greater the risk that this drift could become permanent.”