Can Erdogan's friendship with Trump resolve the diplomatic crisis?

Can Erdogan's friendship with Trump resolve the diplomatic crisis?
Comment: So far, Erdogan has managed to blame US Ambassador Bass for the crisis in diplomatic relations, but how much more can Trump and Erdogan's 'friendship' survive? asks Yvo Fitzherbert.
6 min read
16 Oct, 2017
'Anti-Americanism is a political tactic for domestic consumption in Turkey' writes Fitzherbert [Anadolu]
A new diplomatic crisis emerged earlier this month between the US and Turkey, after the US took the unprecedented decision to cancel its visa service for Turks. 

Such a move, which effectively blocks thousands of Turks from travelling to the US, came after Turkish authorities in Istanbul arrested a US embassy employee earlier this month.

Turkey, in retaliation, responded by cancelling its own e-visa service for US citizens, in a statement near identical to the US document. The crisis had an immediate effect on the Turkish lira, which dropped by more than six percent.

"Recent events have forced the United States government to reassess the commitment of the government of Turkey to the security of US mission facilities and personnel," the US embassy in Ankara said in a statement.

"In order to minimise the number of visitors to our embassy and consulates while this assessment proceeds, effective immediately we have suspended all non-immigrant visa services at all US diplomatic facilities in Turkey." 

Earlier this month, Turkish authorities arrested Metin Topuz, a Turkish citizen who has worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency's office in the Turkish capital for many years. A spokesman for President Erdogan has claimed that Topuz was in contact with leading suspects of last year's failed military coup.

President Erdogan has refrained from pointing the finger at Trump for the crisis

Such an arrest was not the first of its kind. A translator working for the US embassy had been arrested in the southern province of Adana earlier this year. Despite such accusations, the US ambassador insisted that "the US government still has not received any official communications from the Turkish government about the reasons why our local employees have been detained or arrested". 

"The notion that people in our employment are under suspicion of terrorism charges is a very serious allegation. It is one we want to take seriously and better understand the ostensible evidence that supports these allegations."

Since the "war of the visas" began, President Erdogan has refrained from pointing the finger at Trump for the crisis. Instead, President Erdogan has blamed the whole crisis squarely on Ambassador Bass, who is due to leave Ankara to take up his new post as ambassador to Afghanistan in the coming days.

"This ambassador is doing his farewell visits and I personally am not accepting his farewell visit, and will not do so, because we do not see him as a representative of the United States in Turkey," Erdogan said during a press conference in Belgrade - before suggested Bass may have made the decision without White House authorisation, an accusation that the White House quickly refuted. 

"If he made this decision himself, then higher US authorities should not keep him in his position one minute longer. How can you disparage Turkish-American relations like that?" said Erdogan. 

In understanding the breakdown in US-Turkish relations, a deep-seated historical distrust of the West in Turkish politics must be taken into account.

Anti-American sentiment has always held strong in Turkey, and tapping into this has clear benefits for Turkey's political leaders in garnering sympathy across the political spectrum.

Suddenly the stakes have been raised, with a number of US employees and citizens behind bars

As a result, much of the rhetoric that has defined Erdogan's outbursts against the West in recent years has enjoyed broad support by many Turks. In 2017, a survey revealed that 72 percent of Turks viewed US power and influence as the biggest threat to Turkey. Outbursts of anti-Americanism should therefore be seen as a political tactic for domestic consumption.

But while the US might have grudgingly learned to accept criticism from Turkey, the arrest of the two US employees signals something else is at play.

Suddenly the stakes have been raised, with a number of US employees and citizens behind bars. The most high-profile example is the US pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been incarcerated in Turkish prison since October of last year.

Although he had previously lived in Turkey for 23 years without incident, Ankara accuses him of being part of what it refers to as "FETO" - the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation - (the same charge levelled against Metin Topuz), which Ankara blames for the failed coup attempt last July.

Read more: Trump and Erdogan: How long will the honeymoon last?

Branson's case has aroused the interest of President Trump, who appears keen to secure the pastor's freedom. In his meeting with Erdogan in May, he reportedly brought up the issue three times, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Brunson's wife in Ankara during his visit to Turkey in March.

While Brunson's imprisonment has been a cause for concern in Washington, the imprisonment of Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab in the US has also angered Erdogan.

Zarrab was arrested in Miami in March 2016 and stands accused of evading international sanctions against Iran, by helping the Turkish government use gold to pay for Iranian gas.

In a recent outburst, Erdogan accused the US of trying to make a "false witness" out of Zarrab. While the case has attracted little attention in the US, it has been widely reported in Turkish media. Erdogan reportedly fears Zarrab's next hearing - due to take place in New York on 27 November - may reveal incriminating evidence about the president's involvement in avoiding sanctions. 

As a result, many have begun to wonder whether the real reason behind the recent arrest of Topuz, along with the US pastor last year, is simply an attempt by the Turkish president to secure the release of Zarrab through a prisoner swap. A former US ambassador to Turkey recently penned an article urging Trump not to give into Erdogan and offer such an exchange.

Erdogan's ploy of shifting all the blame onto the outgoing ambassador while refraining from criticising Trump appears to be an attempt to offer the US president a way out of the crisis.

Erdogan's ploy of shifting all the blame onto the outgoing ambassador while refraining from criticising Trump appears to be an attempt to offer the US president a way out of the crisis

The prevailing discourse in Turkish media centres around the good working relationship between the two presidents, even as other voices in the US administration appear set on undermining Erdogan.

In doing so, Ankara is hoping that by keeping relations cordial with Trump, there is still the possibility of halting the gradual divorce between the two NATO allies. Erdogan's administration will take hope in the fact that, unlike their European counterparts, the US administration has avoided explicitly mentioning Turkey's democratic decline.

Despite this, Turkey's miscalculation rests on their failure to appreciate the "Turkish fatigue" in Washington. Erdogan's criticism against the West, and especially the United States, has chipped away at the trust that existed between the two nations.

Despite the friendship that may have blossomed between the two presidents, it seems unlikely it will remedy the distrust and fatigue with which the US administration views Ankara.

The decision to suspend visas is a product of the dominance of this view in Washington circles, likely came as a more severe reaction than Ankara had bargained for.

Even if the visa suspension is eventually lifted - perhaps in return for releasing one of the US employees from Turkish jail - Turkey's gradual divorce from the West appears to be inevitable.

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. He has written on Kurdish politics, the Syrian war and the refugee crisis for a variety of Turkish and English publications.

Follow him on Twitter: @yvofitz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.