Interesting déjà vu in Turkey-US ties

Interesting déjà vu in Turkey-US ties

The United States’ decision to suspend non-immigrant visa services at its embassy in Ankara and consulates elsewhere in Turkey, followed by Turkey’s immediate response by suspending visa services to U.S. citizens, amounts to a new low point in bilateral relations.

There are obviously multiple reasons why these two longstanding allies have come to this point. But it is worth drawing attention to the fact that this deterioration began back in the middle of 2013 during the Gezi Park protests. From the very start, Washington and then U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Frank Ricciardone urged the Turkish government to heed the demands of the people who hit the streets and to not use disproportionate force on protestors.

Ankara’s response was swift, claiming that certain big Western powers could be behind the Gezi protests in a bid to weaken the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Turkey more broadly.

Ties between Ankara and Washington soured once again in late 2013 amid the massive corruption and fraud investigation that was launched against the AKP government and - most significantly - President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time.

The government opted to characterize the corruption probes – which ultimately resulted in the resignation of four ministers – as part of an international plot with the U.S., the Jewish lobby, etc. as prime suspects. Pro-government newspapers claimed that Ambassador Ricciardone had organized a meeting with EU ambassadors in Ankara on the days when the investigation was launched, telling them: “We told them to cut their relations with Iran. They did not listen to us. You will now watch the fall of the empire.”

The U.S. Embassy denied such reports but that did not stop it being repeatedly blasted by Erdoğan and other senior AKP officials. In an address in the Black Sea coastal city of Samsun on Dec. 21, 2013, for example, Erdoğan directly targeted Ricciardone: “Ambassadors are engaging in some provocative actions. I’m calling on them: Do your job. We are not obliged to keep you in our country. If our ambassadors engaged in such plots in your countries, we would withdraw them.” In another statement around the same time, he described Ricciardone as a “rookie ambassador.”

This long reminder highlights some important similarities about the ongoing crisis with the U.S. In a statement delivered on Oct. 10 in Serbia, Erdoğan targeted current U.S. Ambassador to Ankara John Bass and effectively declared him persona non grata. Using similar language to 2013, Erdoğan singled out the ambassador as the source of tension. “I would not hesitate to withdraw my ambassador [from Washington] in one hour if he did the same,” he said.

So in both 2013 and 2017, when ties between Ankara and Washington faced difficulties, Erdoğan has preferred to single out U.S. ambassadors in order to create a room to maneuver to resolve the problem. His open message to the U.S. administration that political dialogue at a senior level is needed should be interpreted in this context.

However, the difference between then and now is that the current feud is a reflection of a more structural conflict between Ankara and Washington. The strategic dimension of Turkey-U.S. ties has almost vanished and increasing numbers of people in Washington are questioning the value of the alliance with Turkey.

If two sides manage to find a way to address their many problems, the U.S. decision to suspend visa applications in Turkey could mark an end to long-standing tension. If they do not, it could be the start of a much more devastating period. Common sense should prevail in these difficult times for the sake of both countries.

Opinion, Serkan Demirtaş, Turkey