ISTANBUL, TURKEY – The U.S. State Department and the Turkish government reached an agreement, which the U.S. Embassy in Ankara announced on December 28, 2017, effectively ending the nearly three-month diplomatic dispute between the two countries.
It would be incorrect to say that this degradation in Turkish-American relations began with the arrest of a Turkish employee at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul. Despite strong historic ties between the two countries, the relationship has been wearing thin since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. It is true, however, that Metin Topuz‘s arrest on terrorism-related charges in early October was the catalyst that started this diplomatic spat between Turkey and the United States.
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara announced October 8 that it was no longer processing any non-immigrant visas through its diplomatic missions in Turkey because of Topuz’s arrest. The Turkish government then responded less than a day later with an almost identical suspension of visa applications. Nearly a month passed before any new developments arose, when the U.S. Embassy issued a statement claiming to have received assurance that Turkish authorities would provide warning or notice before arresting any of its employees. Shortly thereafter, the Turkish Embassy in Washington said nearly the exact opposite that “Turkey is a state of law and our government cannot provide any statements regarding files that are subject of ongoing legal processes.”
The Obama administration had preferred to remain as unengaged in the Syrian Civil War as possible while still supporting opposition to the Assad regime. This at first entailed limited material and financial support for the “moderate rebels,” groups that the Turkish government had been backing in full since the start of the revolution. But the fragmented nature of the Free Syrian Army proved to be less effective than Washington had hoped, driving them to what they perceived as the next best option: the Syrian Kurds.
Strong historic ties, shared international interests and NATO membership had long kept Turkey and the United States in close cooperation. But Turkey had been fighting its own civil conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for more than 30 years, and it just so happened that the largest Syrian Kurdish organization, a collective of militias and political groups, itself had close ties to the PKK. Obama might have deemed the Kurds to be the most logical choice in the Syrian conflict, but many Turkish officials viewed it as betrayal.
The relationship grew even more strained after the July 2016 military coup in Turkey, which the government blamed on Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania. Amid calls to extradite Gülen from Turkey, American officials resisted, claiming insufficient evidence for an extradition. The coming months were marked with tens of thousands of arrests and detentions from the Turkish government, supposedly purging the members of Gülen’s global organization. And this is where the visa crisis kicked into full swing.
The Turkish government alleged that Topuz, the arrested consulate worker, had helped terrorists, members of Gülen’s movement, escape Turkey after the coup. The former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass noted in a video he recorded and posted to the embassy’s website shortly after the incident that Topuz was the second U.S. diplomatic employee arrested in 2017.
After a month-long stalemate, visa services resumed for both countries under limited circumstances. Applications and visa appointments were to continue at a much-reduced pace at American diplomatic missions. Although no one could get appointments for months from the point visa services resumed, it wasn’t until mid-December that the tensions grew tense again.
“While #USVisa appointments in Ankara and Istanbul are still limited, the wait time for appointments varies according to the visa category,” the U.S. Embassy in Ankara announced December 20 on Twitter. “Appointments for business and tourist visas are available for January 2019.”
Despite not invoking any intense political response from the Turkish government, the announced delays in visa applications caused somewhat of an uproar across social media in Turkey. Many felt that the announcement was condescending and insulting. “We had told our American counterparts that we didn’t see these punishing steps as mature behavior,” the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said in Turkish in a public statement. “Of course, the applications are piling up because they are in a limited number. And because they are awarding visas in a smaller quantity and speed than they had previously given out.”
Prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Turkish government had mainly been vocal enthusiasts for Donald Trump. Afraid Hillary Clinton would continue the policies of the Obama administration toward the Syrian Kurds, Ankara wasn’t subtle in its support for the political outsider whose brand also lays claim to a large shopping mall in central Istanbul. But Trump has only continued these policies.
The December 28 announcement from the U.S. embassy was largely unexpected. “The government of Turkey has adhered to the high-level assurances … that there are no additional local employees of our Mission in Turkey under investigation, that local staff of our Embassy and consulates will not be detained or arrested for performing their official duties and that Turkish authorities will inform the U.S. Government in advance if the Government of Turkey intends to detain or arrest any member of our local staff in the future,” read the statement. Not long after, however, the Turkish ambassador in Washington responded in Turkish not long after with a resounding, “We didn’t reassure the United States whatsoever.”
Negative developments in a criminal case against a Turkish-Iranian business man who allegedly violated Iranian sanctions and mixed signals from senior Trump administration officials about Turkey’s role in sponsoring Islamic extremism also bode poorly for the relationship between the two allies. And while the visa crisis and any tangible political disputes between the two countries have resolved themselves in time for the new year, it could be many more before Turkish-American relations finally begin to warm.