The US and Turkey increasingly find themselves on opposing sides of several global issues. When seen against the backdrop of the war in Syria, the fallout from this high stakes brinkmanship could have long term consequences.
The deterioration in US-Turkey relations entered a new phase last night as the US Embassy in Ankara announced that they would indefinitely suspend handling all regular visa applications in Turkey as they “reassess the commitment of the government of Turkey to the security of US mission facilities and personnel”.
The Turkish Embassy in the US was quick to answer with an almost identical copy-paste statement blocking new visa applications from US citizens. America’s move to suspend visa applications from Turkey seems to be retaliation for last week’s arrest of a local employee of the US Consulate with reported ties to Fetullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of masterminding the July 15 coup, and currently lives in the US.
The Turkish citizen arrested last Wednesday has been charged with espionage and attempting to damage the constitutional order of Turkey.
The US Embassy’s statement outlines that only non-immigrant visas will be affected meaning that Turks will not be given visas to visit the US, unless they are planning to move there.
Hence, the green card-carrying Fetullah Gulen and the hundreds of Gulenists hiding in the United States will be able to safely renew their immigrant visas while Turkish businessmen, students and tourists will be denied entry into the country.
It’s hypocritical that Washington is “deeply disturbed” by the arrest of a consulate official – after all, it was a US court that issued arrest warrants for 12 members of Turkish President Erdogan’s security detail in relation to a brawl that broke out in front of the Turkish Embassy last May.
Security detail carry a higher status of diplomatic immunity than “general staffers”, however, this didn’t stop the US from issuing arrest warrants for them – and US lawmakers supported the move.
It’s deeply saddening to see these once close NATO allies drifting further apart as their national interests diverge. While the timing of the latest move by the US points to a tit-for-tat following the arrest of their consulate worker, there are far more significant underlying problems that have fueled this brash action from the Americans.
Relations have been strained since the US started providing military support to the YPG, which has links to the PKK – an organization that Turkey, NATO, and the US classify as a terrorist organization. Also, reports that proxies supported by the US and Turkey have had clashes in Northern Syria signifies a widening divide.
While Turkey’s national interests may diverge with the US’, they have converged with that of Russia and Iran’s – leading to a realignment that makes the US uncomfortable.
America finds itself in an unfamiliar place as the trio of Turkey, Russia and Iran are making regional policy decisions with the US isolated on the outside looking in. To compound the isolation, US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy has led to a deterioration of America’s global leadership that’s created a vacuum – which other leaders have been quick to occupy.
Russia and Iran have also recently had diplomatic spats with the United States as Iran has been placed on a travel ban list by President Trump and US authorities closed Russia’s Consulate General in San Francisco, the trade mission in Washington, and its office in New York last month.
With Turkish troops standing ready to be deployed to the city of Idlib, which borders Afrin province—a key transportation hub for the YPG in their goal to create a corridor in North Syria and the Turkish border—it’s only a matter of time before the Turkish army will meet YPG militia on the battlefield.
Will this meeting descend into a military engagement? Will the YPG use their new arsenal of US-made weapons against the Turkish army? If both sides clash, who will the US side with? Their new-found friends in the YPG, or their NATO allies of fifty years, the Republic of Turkey?
The answers to these inevitable questions will be far more important for the future of US-Turkish relations than the tactical blocking of visas.