US-Turkey visa crisis: The tip of the iceberg?

US-Turkey visa crisis: The tip of the iceberg?
A Turkish police officer patrols at the entrance of US consulate in Istanbul. (AFP)
Updated 10 October 2017

US-Turkey visa crisis: The tip of the iceberg?

US-Turkey visa crisis: The tip of the iceberg?

ANKARA: A serious diplomatic crisis erupted on Sunday between Ankara and Washington after the US Embassy in Ankara said it had suspended all non-immigrant visa services at its diplomatic facilities in Turkey.
“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 embassy said in a statement posted on its Twitter account.
“In order to minimize 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.”
Ankara retaliated via its embassy in Washington hours later.
With a word-for-word copy of the American announcement but replacing the country names, Ankara suspended all non-immigrant visa services at all Turkish diplomatic facilities in the US, including visas in passports, e-visas and those acquired at the borders. 
Visa applications for tourism, the media, study, marriage and business are included in this restriction. 
The tit-for-tat moves are seen as a further deterioration in relations between the NATO allies. Turkish authorities last week arrested a Turkish employee at the US Consulate over his alleged links with leading members of the outlawed Gulen network, which is believed to be behind last year’s coup attempt. 
In March, a Turkish interpreter working at the US Consulate was detained in the southern province of Adana over his alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since the 1980s. 
This unprecedented new low in bilateral relations is likely to affect joint counterterrorism efforts and defense cooperation due to decreased trust. 
“This should be seen as part of US pressure on Ankara in reaction to the worsening of relations and the erosion of democracy in Turkey, rather than to one incident only,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Arab News. 
The US is using Turkey’s southern Incirlik air base in its campaign against Daesh. If relations do not improve soon, the US might seek alternatives to the base, like Germany did in September by relocating its soldiers to Jordan after months of tensions with Ankara. 
Unluhisarcikli said US policy circles were inspired by the German move, adding: “While US-Turkey ties have always seen ups and downs, this is one of the lowest points in the relationship, at a crucial time when there are tectonic shifts both globally and around Turkey. Diplomats rather than politicians should do most of the talking if the relationship is to be put back on track.”
The two countries have been at odds before, mainly due to Washington’s partnership with and arming of the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers an extension of the PKK. Ankara has also been urging the US to extradite Fethullah Gulen over the coup attempt, in which more than 240 people were killed. 
The leak by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency of the locations of 10 sensitive US military sites in northern Syria in June infuriated the Pentagon, which voiced concerns about the reliability of the partnership with Ankara. 
Mehmet Ali Tugtan, an expert on transatlantic relations at Istanbul Bilgi University, said the arrest of the US Consulate employee was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and reflects an overall deterioration in bilateral ties.
He said that joint efforts against Daesh would be affected under two scenarios: If the escalation leads Ankara to restrict US military operations from Turkey, particularly Incirlik, and if the Turkish military or Free Syrian Army units attack the Kurdish-controlled Syrian district of Afrin, in which case YPG forces poised to complete the operation in Raqqa would be diverted to defend Afrin.
State-run Anadolu news agency said another US consulate worker had been summoned to testify over his wife and daughter’s suspected links to Gulen — which it said had emerged during the questioning of Metin Topuz, the employee arrested last week.
Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who now chairs the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, said the crisis demonstrates the limits of the personal relationship established between presidents Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 
“The hollowing out of institutional ties has created an environment open to escalation,” Ulgen told Arab News, adding that the crisis will complicate efforts to find room for convergence in the two countries’ regional policies. 
Escalation will increase Ankara’s psychological alienation from the transatlantic community, Ulgen said.
“On the Turkish side, the American decision will deepen the belief that the US is unwilling to empathize with Turkey’s concerns over threats to its domestic security,” he said.
“On the US side, it will increase the degree of frustration over influencing the Turkish government to start improving the rule of law.”
According to Reuters, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said that if Washington had serious security concerns about its missions in Turkey, steps would be taken to address them.
“But if it’s an issue regarding the arrest of the consulate employee, then this is a decision the Turkish judiciary has made,” Gul said. “Trying a Turkish citizen for a crime committed in Turkey is our right.”