How Long Can Turkey and America Keep up Their Alliance?
Long simmering tensions between the United States and Turkey exploded into a full diplomatic crisis a week ago Sunday after the U.S. Embassy in Ankara suspended all nonimmigrant visa services at its diplomatic facilities in Turkey. The immediate trigger was the arrest of a consulate employee in Istanbul over his alleged links to Fethullah Gülen. In an immediate tit-for-tat reaction, Turkey suspended its own visa services in the United States, effectively shutting off travel to all tourists or citizens without a pre-existing visa. Despite extreme differences all political groups in Turkey lauded their government’s quick response, showing rare unity across an increasingly polarized landscape. A week later the suspension of visas remains as cooler heads attempt to prevail. Unfortunately this latest formal diplomatic split, which is a first between these two historically close NATO allies, means that every day the issue remains unresolved does further damage to bilateral relations.
The sudden row set off by announcements over Twitter last week were not officially communicated beforehand, souring recent high-level relations cultivated between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump. Turkey and the United States had been focusing on their common operational interests while trying to sweep their proverbial divergences under the rug. But it seems this rug is only so big, and the two-way suspension of visa services seems to be the most visible culmination of many long-held, multifaceted disagreements. In the short-term, this is a painful reminder of the limits to the personal friendship between Trump and Erdogan and in the long-term a potent warning of what might be ahead for a rapidly shifting alliance in new geopolitical territory.
Taking Things (Im)personally
Trump set a positive tone for his policy towards Turkey despite increasing skepticism towards Ankara from Washington. Last month the president ended his meeting with Erdogan in New York by saying, “we have a great friendship as countries. I think we're, right now, as close as we have ever been.” Erdogan followed suit by referring to his “Dear friend Donald” and treating Trump differently than he treated Obama, avoiding personal accusations in spite of a series of challenges including the current visa crisis.
Yet the warm regard that Erdogan’s supporters once had for Trump has begun to wane, and many in his camp feel deceived by earlier overtures that they now see as empty rhetoric, particularly as once clear allies such as Gen. Michael Flynn have left the administration. Erdogan has penned the blame for the visa crisis on outgoing U.S. ambassador to Turkey John Bass, a convenient scapegoat given that he is on his way to being the next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. By avoiding mention of Trump’s name, Erdogan demonstrated he did not want to harm his positive personal chemistry with the new U.S. president. Instead a choir close to the Turkish government have accused the American bureaucracy of being anti-Turkey and part of the “deep state” who they have accused of being part or at the least sympathetic to Gulen and his network. While an effort to avoid direct confrontation with Trump is understandable given his reputation for being a severe counterpuncher, the visa crisis has gone far beyond a simple diplomatic misunderstanding or technical consular issue and demonstrates the need for a broader recalibration of bilateral relations.
Ever since Trump’s elections, Erdogan and his administration have been overly optimistic about their relations with the United States despite disagreements over key issues, such as the role of Kurdish factions in Syria and Iraq. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) led by Erdogan saw President Trump’s election as an opportunity to restart relations after their disappointment with Obama. Both governments reinforce a strong commitment to fighting ISIS in the region, but have not been able to see eye-to-eye on Gulen or his network, which is a terrorist organization according to Ankara and Washington has been ambiguous about. This latest diplomatic stand-off could determine whether Erdogan’s initial optimism towards the Trump administration will persevere or turn bitterly sour after a perceived honeymoon.
The issues that led to the suspension of visa services are broader in scope and more complicated than just two men. Commentators in Turkey advocate closing the U.S. Incirlik Air Base in retaliation for U.S. action. Critics of this idea point out that closing the air base would not actually impede U.S. strategic interests all that much, as the United States could find space in another country like Germany. As of late, cooperation at Incirlik remains untouched by the diplomatic chasm. Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning told reporters that “the Turkish air force base in Incirlik continues to fulfill an important role supporting NATO and coalition efforts.” He stressed the close cooperation and commitment of Turkey as a NATO ally and reiterated that United States will continue to coordinate military activities with Ankara.