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Diplomatic drama in Turkish-US relations

A farewell reception took place in Ankara last week for John Bass, the departing US ambassador to Turkey. Attendance at such events is significant, and sends important signals regarding the relations between the host country and the envoy’s home country. In this case, not a single Turkish government official or representative of opposition parties showed up.
This was somewhat unusual given the long record of Turkish-US relations, and the diplomacy that usually characterizes such occasions. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had refused the ambassador’s request for a farewell appointment. 
Relations between Turkey and the US are passing through the most critical period of their history. They suffered a recent blow when US missions in Turkey suspended processing most new visa applications after authorities in Istanbul arrested a US embassy employee. Erdogan criticized Bass for what he said was the ambassador’s role in the suspension. “If the decision was taken by the ambassador himself, he should be withdrawn immediately by the administration. But if the decision was taken by the administration then I have nothing left to talk about with them.” The US State Department gave its support to the ambassador, and said the decision had indeed been taken by the administration.
Many consider that Bass’s departure may in fact hasten the end of the diplomatic crisis between the two NATO members, and push them to mend ties. In his final press conference in Ankara, Bass said there was hope that the two countries would find a way to solve the crisis. The Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s statement that “strained ties between Turkey and the US will normalize soon” strengthened this belief.
Since his appointment by former US President Barack Obama, Bass has not had as easy a tenure as his predecessors, and his successor will have a tough task. There are still several issues that the two countries disagree on. Their strategic partnership appears to be weakening as regional priorities between Ankara and Washington no longer overlap, and in fact often conflict. Many in Turkey, from time to time, argue that “if this is a strategic partnership that often harms our interests, we would prefer not to have it.” Some believe that the relationship between two countries should be limited to an alliance within the framework of NATO rather than a strategic partnership.

Relations between Ankara and Washington have been troubled before, but the latest visa dispute has serious implications.

Sinem Cengiz

Over the past few years, the strains between Ankara and Washington, due to conflicting regional policies of the US administration during Obama’s tenure, provoked anti-Americanism in Turkish society. According to Unal Cevikoz, former Turkish ambassador, the crisis between Turkey and its Western allies affects public opinion in Turkey. “The Turkish public is simply looking to its Western allies as conspirators and as enemies. If this belief and this perception become more and more structural, then I am afraid it will carry Turkey away from its Western location and it will be very difficult to find a remedy to that illness in the future because it will be a part of the structural Turkish public opinion thinking.”
Needless to say, the fear of foreign spies from the West has become a part of a national perception today in Turkey. Moreover, the deep crisis of confidence between the US and Turkey is not helping to prevent this perception from strengthening. The US-Turkey relationship has endured crises before — the notorious Johnson Letter of the 1960s, the US arms embargo and the dispute in 2003 over the deployment of US forces to Turkey to open a northern front in the war in Iraq. 
The current visa dispute is as significant as any of those. This crisis of mutual trust has led to a serious rift in an alliance of almost 70 years. Now, the fate of the partnership, a multidimensional and multidirectional strategic cooperation, depends on the harmony between principles and benefits, and also on the balancing of cooperative responsibilities between two countries. This can only be achieved with mutual efforts by Ankara and Washington.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz