The road to the Turkish-US diplomatic crisis

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slams the American ambassador as rift widens.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with US President Donald Trump as they give statements to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, US May 16, 2017.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with US President Donald Trump as they give statements to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, US May 16, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Son dakika,’ the blaring headlines blare on Turkish media websites. This is the term used to signify breaking news, and today it is about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking on the visa crisis with the United States.
“Let me be very clear, the person who caused this is the [US] ambassador here. It is unacceptable that the US has sacrificed a strategic partner like Turkey to a presumptuous ambassador,” the president said on Thursday. “It is a shame if the US is governed by an ambassador in Ankara.”
The US suspended nonimmigrant visa services in Turkey on Sunday, after Turkey arrested a local employee of the US Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish law enforcement has accused the employee, Metin Topuz, of “espionage charges and alleged links with some leading members of the Gulen network, accused of being behind last year’s failed coup attempt,” Hurriyet News reported.
Ankara responded by suspending nonimmigrant visa services at its diplomatic facilities in the US. Turkey copied word-for-word the US suspension statement in its reply to the US.
On Thursday, Erdogan spoke with provincial governors at the Bestepe Presidential Complex in Ankara to condemn the US. He accused US Ambassador John Bass of not “knowing his place.”
“We are not a tribal state, we are the state of the Republic of Turkey, and you will accept it. If you don’t then sorry, but we do not need you,” he said.
The collision course between Ankara and Washington on foreign policy has become a kind of cliché, similar to the refrain that Turkey is a NATO ally of the US. Both are true, but the tensions between the countries have run deep for years. Ankara blames the US for hosting Fetullah Gulen, the exiled cleric who once supported Erdogan.
The “Fetullah Terrorist Organization,” as Turkish media calls it, was blamed for the coup attempt last year that led to the arrest of tens of thousands. But Turkish-US relations have also frayed over other issues. Hasan Basri Yalcin, in a piece at Anadolu, said there is an “absence of coherence” in US foreign policy.
He accuses the Obama administration of doing the “opposite of what it preached” regarding democracy and redlines in Syria. Trump has also been unclear, the author writes. Yalcin accuses the US of supporting “PKK offshoots” by “providing heavy weaponry, political legitimacy and air support to this PKK offshoot in northern Syria, despite Turkey’s repeated denunciations of using one terrorist group against another.”
“Offshoots” refers to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces, the mostly Kurdish US-backed forces fighting ISIS in Raqqa and elsewhere. This is Ankara’s real concern, as opposed to the visa issue.
The visa spat is merely a symptom of the larger crisis, and one where Turkey wants to show it is not a minor power that can be pushed around. Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said on Wednesday that the current crisis could be resolved soon, sounding a conciliatory tone. However, other Turkish voices wonder about the long term in the Middle East.
“Will Washington relinquish the Middle East to Moscow,” asked Burhanettin Duran at the Daily Sabah. Erdogan recently met with Iranian leaders and Russia sent high level delegations to Ankara. This is part of an overall Turkish shift toward Moscow and Tehran.
The West tends to see Ankara through the lens of “NATO ally,” but for the last decade and a half Turkey has tried to carve out a new role for itself.
This began with the ideology of “neo-Ottomanism” and attempts to broker peace in the region. It continued through Turkey’s role in the Syrian conflict and support of Qatar. And now it is entering a third phase with Turkey’s increasing warmth for Moscow and its role in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.
At each iteration it isn’t a question of the US “losing” Turkey, it is that Turkey has a very clear and robust view of its own role. Sometimes the US policy dovetails with that; in recent years they are increasingly at odds. American media are now focusing on the role of prisoners in Turkey who are dual US citizens or on prosecutions of journalists. However, like the visa dispute, these are symbolic of a much larger smoldering clash between Washington and Ankara, and a political shift in Turkey away from the West.