Turkey-US relations locked into a downward spiral

Think Turkey’s relationship with Europe is bad? Think again.

Once the bedrock of Turkey’s foreign policy, Ankara’s ties with Washington have hit an all-time low this month, with Turks arresting U.S. consular employees and the United States responding with a visa ban. As of October 10th, U.S. consular offices and embassies in Turkey have suspended processing visa applications for Turkish citizens, only allowing those with existing visas to travel to the U.S.

“This was not a decision we took lightly and it’s a decision we took with great sadness,” said John Bass, the embattled U.S. ambassador who had become a target for Turkey’s hostile pro-government media until he left the country for another posting. “We realize that the suspension of visa services will inconvenience people. We hope it will not last long, but at this time we can’t predict how long it will take to resolve this matter.”

If that sounds ominous, it probably is. The visa suspension is only the tip of the iceberg in a long-dysfunctional marriage now on a path to self-destruction.

The Turkish-U.S. alliance goes back to the Korean War and the early days of NATO, and had for many decades defined modern Turkey as a secular and pro-western Muslim country. But with sweeping changes in Turkey’s domestic scene and strategic outlook lately, the relationship is facing tough times. What makes this new round different from past turbulence is the level of vitriol and willingness on both sides to push back.

The list of grievances is long for both parties. For Turkey, much of it goes back to the July 2016 coup attempt and suspicions that the Americans had something to do with it. Turks are also resentful of U.S. support for Syrian Kurds, and Washington is increasingly weary of Ankara’s authoritarian drift.

For Washington’s part, Turkey’s decision to purchase S-400 missiles from Russia has upset both NATO and the U.S. Congress, and Turkish President Erdogan’s recent overtures to Tehran, Moscow, and the Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro have not made him any more popular in the U.S. capital.

Erdogan already suffers from a poor image in western media but his visit to Washington in May turned into a calamity of sorts when his bodyguards attacked protestors outside the Turkish embassy in DC. Both Congress and DC law enforcement are upset and arrest warrants have been issued for 13 of Erdogan’s bodyguards for the incident. In response, Erdogan declared, “If arrest warrants are issued for my 13 bodyguards in a country where I went upon invitation, I'm sorry, but I cannot say that country is civilized.”

There is little public support for US-Turkish ties. In a Pew Research poll earlier this year, 72% of Turks said they felt “threatened” by US power. While Turkish papers and pro-government outlets are splashed with anti-American headlines and stories about “CIA agents” lurking in dark corners of Turkish civil society, there is a blitzkrieg of commentary in U.S. media bashing Ankara’s domestic conduct and its leader. In Congress, a slow drumbeat for a tougher stance on Turkey is becoming audible, and last week 14 senators, including John McCain, signed a joint letter asking President Donald Trump to do just that. 

But one way or another, nearly all of these bilateral disputes can be traced back to the trauma of the July 15 coup attempt and the fact that the man Turkish leaders believe is responsible for the coup, Fethullah Gülen, happens to be living in the United States. The Turkish government views Gülen and his followers as the single most important threat to Turkey and continues to purge his sympathizers – along with anyone accidentally caught in the drag net.

There is no doubt that followers of Gülen within the Turkish military played key roles in the failed coup but what that means for Gülen himself within the context of international law — and Turkey’s deteriorating legal framework – is an unresolved topic between the two allies. Turkish demands for Gülen’s extradition have not been met by the U.S. Justice Department, and U.S. officials in the past have privately complained that the evidence presented by Ankara does not have a “smoking gun” linking the powerful cleric directly to the coup-plotters.

Ankara’s frustration on the Gülen issue has gradually given birth to a political narrative that often portrays the coup as a U.S.-backed plot. President Erdogan’s early hopes about striking a deal with President Donald Trump on the extradition of Gülenists now seem to have been dashed and the Turkish president’s public offers to trade Gülen for Andrew Brunson, an American pastor in jail in Turkey, seem to have irritated the US administration. For now, Gülen seems safely ensconced in his Pennsylvania residence, and if tensions continue, might end up becoming a beneficiary of Turkey’s declining stock in the U.S.

But the story doesn’t end with Gülen himself. Earlier this month, Turkish authorities arrested a U.S. consular employee, Metin Topuz, with allegations that he had ties to Gülenist police officers and prosecutors who carried out a massive corruption investigation in December 2013. The 2013 incident implicates key members of Erdogan’s government and marked the beginning of the open warfare between the Gülen network and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), who were once upon a time close allies.

It is now also at the heart of a U.S. inquiry in New York. Last month U.S. prosecutors charged a former economy minister and the deputy head of a leading Turkish state bank for conspiring to evade Iran sanctions by using U.S. banks to transfer funds to Iran. The central figure under investigation is Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader with close links to the Turkish government who has been under arrest for almost a year. Erdogan has long described the case as part of a Gülen-linked conspiracy against Turkey and privately lobbied U.S. authorities for the release of Zarrab.

The Zarrab case is important for Ankara not only because of a potentially embarrassing verdict due in late November but also because of its potential to send shockwaves through the Turkish banking system. This week Turkey’s banking regulators denied rumors that Turkish banks could face billions of dollars in penalties over possible violations of Iran sanctions, but the markets are not convinced. Since the beginning of tensions with the United States – specifically since the arrest of the US consular employee – the Turkish Lira has been dramatically losing value and the talk of an impending economic downturn is stalling an already negative investment climate.

With chaos unfolding in neighboring Iraq and Syria, a fragile economy, and poor relations with neighbouring Europe, the last thing Erdogan needs in the run up to 2019 presidential elections is a crisis with the country’s long-time NATO ally. But at this point, that looks impossible to avoid. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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