Can US be the same with Turkey again?
Turkey-U.S. relations have hit a low with the latest visa crisis, which broke out after the U.S. suspended visa applications in Turkey in retaliation to the arrest of two Turkish employees of its Istanbul Consulate.
The visa issue is just the latest in a pile of problems between the two NATO allies, making a solution even more complex.
Problems started to accumulate in early 2014 when - then prime minister - President Tayyip Erdoğan denounced the U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen and his illegal network as a public enemy and terrorist for two main reasons.
The first was a corruption probe opened against members of the cabinet, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), and even his family in late 2013. The AK Parti accused Gülenist prosecutors and judges of using the investigations as an excuse to undermine the government. The second was another investigation – again allegedly opened by Gülenist judiciary members and gendarmerie officers - exposing the delivery of weapons material to rebel forces fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as well as the later wiretapping of the office of then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as a top secret meeting was ongoing regarding Syria policy.
After both these events, the Erdoğan government started to put pressure on the U.S. to extradite Gülen, whose permanent residence permit in Pennsylvania was granted partly thanks to requests by successive Erdoğan governments, as the two were close allies from 2002 until their roads parted in 2013.
Then came the crisis over the Syrian civil war from mid-2014. Despite objections by Erdoğan, former U.S. President Barack Obama decided to cooperate with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The PYD is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting against Turkey for over three decades, and which is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. It was actually the CIA that helped the Turkish government find, arrest and jail PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan for that reason.
After Obama, amid ongoing objections by Turkey, U.S. President Donald Trump continued to work with the PYD/YPG as the ground force of the Central Command (CENTCOM) in the fight against ISIL.
Then in 2016 a U.S. court arrested Reza Zarrab, a dual Iran-Turkish passport holder, for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. Zarrab had earlier been arrested in the 2013 corruption probes but was later released after the cases were dropped by new judges.
Following Turkey’s military coup attempt on July 15, 2016, for which the Gülenist network has been held responsible, Erdoğan increased his pressure on the U.S. to extradite Gülen. While the U.S. administration repeatedly said that it is down to independent courts to take legal action on Gülen or release Zarrab, a Turkish court arrested Andrew Brunson, an American pastor living in Turkey, accusing him of having links to the now-illegal Gülen network.
So the visa-consulate crisis came on top of a big pile. And now Erdoğan says the cases on the arrest of the U.S. Consulate employees are down to independent Turkish courts.
Can the current visit to the U.S. of Turkish Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, who was given a Legion of Merit medal in the U.S. in early 2015, save the situation - at least in military-to-military relations – when both American and Turkish officials talk about ending joint operations from Turkey’s strategic İncirlik air base?
Akar’s visit may help a little in terms of military relations, but much more is needed to put political relations back on track.
In order to become partners again, the two allies have to work out a set of confidence-building measures and find ways to implement them. The fact that there is no sign of this yet does not mean there is no hope left.