The row formally erupted over a US decision to suspend visa services in Turkey, which predictably drew swift condemnation and escalatory measures from Ankara. But the crisis should not come as a surprise, as Ankara has become increasingly erratic in its foreign policy while stepping up its suppression of dissent at home, including the recent string of arrests of Turkish citizens working for the US consulates in Istanbul and Adana.
Turkish authorities also arrested American pastor Andrew Brunson, who ran a church in the western city of Izmir, for his alleged ties to the Islamist Gulen movement, whose founder Fethullah Gulen is accused of orchestrating the unsuccessful coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. US-Turkish citizen Serkan Golge, a NASA scientist, has also been imprisoned for his alleged support for Gulen and role in the coup attempt.
Meanwhile in August, a grand jury in Washington returned indictments against 15 Turkish security officials and four other individuals on charges of attacking protesters during an incident outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in May. The incident took place during Erdogan’s visit to the White House.
Ankara may have miscalculated that Trump, who is engulfed in US domestic turmoil over his controversial style of governing, would accept its overt objective to use Brunson as a pawn in a high-stakes diplomatic gambit to secure Gulen’s extradition.
By suspending visa services in Turkey, Washington is signaling that it can — and is willing to — apply tangible pressure on Ankara to ensure it adheres to international norms and practices, and that it will not tolerate the arbitrary detention of its citizens and harassment of its consular staff.
If Turkey fails to engage in de-escalatory measures, it is conceivable that US intelligence and military cooperation on Syria could be reduced. This would be considered an incremental escalation by Washington, and could run in parallel with the suspension of future bilateral military exercises. Turkey will surely get the message.
Erdogan has insulted the leaders of France, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Greece and other countries, while threatening to use the Turkey-EU migration deal of 2016 as leverage for his political crackdown at home.
Washington has so far chosen to publicly stay out of the various Turkish-generated controversies. But it is possible that the latest string of Turkish detentions of Americans and harassment of US consular employees is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
This despite Erdogan’s apparent conclusion that Turkey’s NATO membership, and Washington’s longstanding objective to preserve its strategic alliance with Ankara, would immunize him against US diplomatic pressure and cumulative anger.
By suspending visa services in Turkey, Washington is signaling that it can — and is willing to — apply tangible pressure on Ankara to ensure it adheres to international norms and practices.
Western leaders have long been careful to balance “constructive criticism” with frustration, if not outright anger, over his blatant disregard for international norms and practices. But the latest American response could be the beginning of a joint and coordinated US-EU diplomatic pressure campaign against Turkey.
Commenting on what led to the current US-Turkish standoff, Michael Rubin, an expert on Turkish politics at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, said: “Turkey coasted on its reputation as an ally for more than a decade, and both US and European diplomats were happy to enable the illusion.
“Taking Americans hostage, beating up protestors in Washington and New York, and having top-level aides seek kickbacks and conspire to evade US law has a cumulative price. There comes a time when diplomatic denial is no longer possible. Erdogan’s actions have consequences, and if he wants to push Turkey down the path of isolation and financial ruin, so be it. But his supporters shouldn’t worry — they can always visit Venezuela.”
In the short run, Erdogan will seek to calm the diplomatic standoff, or at the very least prevent it from escalating into a full-blown crisis whose outcome would be unpredictable. Meanwhile, observers in Washington, Brussels and elsewhere will closely examine where the Turkish-Russian relationship may be heading.
If tensions with Washington do not subside quickly — and there are no indications that they will as long as US citizens are arbitrarily detained — expect Erdogan to show up in Moscow, where he will tout his friendship with President Vladimir Putin.
Never mind that Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in 2015 over competing interests in Syria, and nearly brought NATO to the brink of war with Moscow — by ticking off Trump, Erdogan is in fast need of new friends.
Putin has hardly forgotten about the deadly jet incident, but he is known for his pragmatic — if not outright opportunistic — approach to rolling back US global interests. The world just became a little more dangerous.
• Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst and columnist based in Washington. Twitter: @SigiMideast