Can crisis diplomacy solve Turkey–US tension?
Crisis diplomacy can sometimes be a useful tool to get out of a stalemate - provided that the management of the crisis diplomacy is in safe hands. Can we say diplomacy today is in safe hands in either Washington or Ankara?
“I think right now we’re as close as we’ve ever been,” said U.S President Donald Trump just two weeks ago on Sept. 22, when he met President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in New York. Claiming that U.S.–Turkey relations are at an all-time high? As I saw someone write on Twitter: “You have to be Trump to say it.”
Just two weeks after Trump bragged about his friendship with Erdoğan, the two countries have hit an unprecedented crisis, with both ceasing the processing of non–immigrant visas for one another’s citizens. This is a first ever in relations between these NATO allies.
Does this mean that relations have nose-dived so quickly in the space of two weeks that they have falling to an all-time low? Of course not. For some the storm has long been coming, but neither Erdoğan’s advisors nor the government (or whatever is left of it) were expecting such a move from the U.S.
The decision on visa suspensions came first from the U.S. side. It appeared at first sight to be a retaliation against the arrest of a Turkish national working at the Istanbul consulate on charges of espionage. What infuriated U.S. officials even more was the way Turkey’s pro-government media covered the issue, going as far as to publish the home addresses of the consulate employee. This prompted U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass to accuse “some in the government” of being after “vengeance.”
The decision to block the entry of Turkish citizens’ without a visa to the U.S. appears a disproportionate decision when you look at the immediate cause that prompted it. What’s more, it punishes the Turkish people (including critics of the government) rather than Erdoğan and his government (which has a constituency largely with no intention to travel to the U.S. anyway).
But it would be wrong to assume that this decision came as a reaction to a single incident. It actually follows an accumulation of steps taken by the Turkish side to try to force policy changes in Washington in three main areas: The case of Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, believed to have been behind the July 15 coup attempt; the ongoing investigation in U.S. into Turkish-Iranian trader Reza Zarrab, which recently included charges against a former minister in Erdoğan’s cabinet; and the U.S. military support given to the YPG, the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Metin Topuz, who has been working for 33 years in the Istanbul Consulate, is not the first Turkish national employed at U.S. diplomatic missions to be arrested. Hamza Uluçay, who worked in the U.S. Consulate in Adana for 36 years, was also arrested in March on charges of “being a member of terror organization.” Meanwhile, American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been living in İzmir for 23 years, has been behind bars for more than a year.
Compounding all this the fact that in July Turkey’s state-run news agency controversially reveled the positions of 10 U.S. military posts in northern Syria, drawing a swift criticism from the Pentagon.
It seems that the U.S. has decided to try to stop the list getting longer, opting for a major step whose consequences will be immediately felt – not least in the sharp fall of the Turkish Lira and Borsa Istanbul stocks, among others.
So it seems that the U.S. wanted to give a strong signal that it is fed up with Ankara’s escalating “hostage-taking” policy. But which U.S. are we talking about? Who was behind this decision? Was it Trump, who not so long ago was bragging about his friendship with Erdoğan?
Indeed, this is the gist of the matter when it comes to how Ankara reads Washington. Convinced that part of the U.S. “establishment” is behind the Gülen network, and that this “part” of the establishment wants to topple Erdoğan, some in Ankara seem set on a warpath with the U.S. “establishment.” They have been and are pinning their hopes on Trump, who is himself seen as an “anti–establishment” president.
That’s why some in Ankara may feel that by continuing to escalate the crisis, they can take the issue from the establishment level to the presidential level. One could explain Ankara’s decision to stop issuing visas to Americans as an act for domestic consumption, but the fact that the prosecutor in Istanbul also yesterday invited a second employee of the Istanbul Consulate to testify as a suspect is a move directed at Washington.
But pinning hopes in Trump has not worked until now. Indeed, it has been a mistake from the very beginning for some in Ankara to pin their hopes to Trump.
At the end of the day, we currently have a very problematic leadership and administration in Washington and a very misguided perspective on Washington in Ankara. It is certainly difficult to say that the management of crisis diplomacy is in safe hands in both capitals, which means that the current tension could spiral into an even worse mess.