Suspicions over Turkey’s good faith in resolving US visa spat
Three weeks have passed since the U.S. suspended its visa services in Turkey, followed by Ankara’s tit-for-that action. Although the past week was full of hope due to an apparent mutual wish to contain the crisis voiced during Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Cohen’s trip to Ankara, the mood slid back into a grey zone again with relentlessly bellicose statements from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the recent days.
In a meeting with lawmakers from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Oct. 24, Erdoğan implicitly targeted Washington over a report suggesting Turkey was given a diplomatic note by the U.S. for the confiscation of a cell phone used by Metin Topuz, a local staffer at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul arrested on terrorism charges.
“You detain someone because of his contacts with [the Fethullah Terrorist Organization] FETÖ. But because they don’t have the face to ask for him directly, they ask for the remanding of his cell phone, citing ‘diplomatic immunity’ as an excuse,” Erdoğan said.
Words of this magnitude do not only drop a bombshell into the public arena in Turkey, feeding anti-American sentiments. More importantly, they cast suspicion on Ankara’s good faith in resolving the visa spat as quickly as possible.
Washington has been careful not to use words like “precondition” to characterize its expectations from Ankara in the cases of the detained Topuz and Hamza Uluçay, as well as most recently Mete Cantürk, who was summoned to testify by a prosecutor in Istanbul but never showed up. However, it has been equally clear in asking for assurances that more of its employees in Turkey will not be subjected to arrests.
The U.S. side insists that apart from a number of phone calls that Topuz made with FETÖ suspects, Turkey has not presented any credible evidence that would challenge its belief in the innocence of their local staffer. Furthermore, they have asked the Turks if they have any taped conversations or transcripts of Topuz’s contacts with the suggested individuals and the answer was “no.”
Washington believes Topuz, who is accused for having links to well-known Gülenists like former chief prosecutor Zekeriya Öz, interacted with Turkish officials appointed to those posts by the Turkish state within the limits of his job description.
On the other hand, there is a clear intention of Turkish law enforcement authorities to link Topuz to the corruption allegations of Dec. 17 and 25, 2013, and thus to the ongoing Reza Zarrab case in New York. This intention popped up once again in recent leaks to press, which revealed that despite a diplomatic note from Washington insisting that Topuz’s cell phone is U.S. government property and thus should be returned to it, Turkish officials cracked the phone and dived into its messages upon court order.
This last act by the Turkish side carries the potential of jeopardizing the limited progress made in talks to resolve the visa spat. The cracking of Topuz’s phone and leaking of his messages with an American diplomat - which contained nothing worse than the exchange of “wows” over news reports about Zarrab’s arrest back in 2016 – clearly demonstrates a political will to escalate the crisis.
Meanwhile, the mood at the U.S. Congress toward Turkey is putting additional pressure on the Trump administration to elevate sanctions against Ankara. A bipartisan letter signed by 14 U.S. senators, spearheaded by Republican heavyweight John McCain, was sent to President Trump last week, calling on him to urge Erdoğan to stop harassing Americans diplomats and to respect human rights. The letter marked the clear support of the U.S. Senate for the suspension of visa services in Turkey.
Previous crises between the U.S. and Turkey - like the brawl between Erdoğan’s security detail and protesters in Washington in May - showed that when domestic politics kicks in on both sides, the effect of diplomacy can only be limited. To say the least, Ankara has certainly been a master of making life harder for its diplomats.