A deeper fracture in Turkish-American ties
The U.S.-Turkey visa crisis is simply the rupture point of a fault-line between Ankara and Washington that has accumulated considerable tension in recent years. So even if the parties manage to find a solution to this latest crisis, the problems that brought us here are likely to persist and foment new conflicts.
While the escalation could have been prevented with better crisis management and diplomacy on both sides, the core of the problems between Ankara and Washington stem primarily from the erosion of the institutions upon which their alliance was built.
Military ties have historically constituted the backbone of Turkish-U.S. relations. Because of the asymmetrical power relationship, the two countries have often harbored different threat perceptions and priorities. But nevertheless the bipolar nature of the Cold War suppressed the clash of interests to an extent. Even then, relations were marked by periodic turbulence such as the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the Lyndon Johnson letter (1964) and Cyprus (1970s).
After the end of the Cold War, the divergences started to surface. Facing an uncertain international environment in which NATO began seeking a new mission, Turkey opted to side with the U.S. when regional crises erupted.
In this respect, then-President Turgut Özal regarded the Gulf War in 1990 as an opportunity for Ankara to prove its loyalty to the U.S., but the consequences of that war would ultimately harm Ankara-Washington ties. The establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq gradually poisoned relations over the following decades, fueling suspicions that the ultimate U.S. goal was to establish an independent Kurdistan.
But in retrospect, the real rupture in military ties occurred in 2003 with the failure of the March 1 resolution and the “sack incident,” in which U.S. soldiers humiliatingly captured Turkish soldiers in Sulaymaniyah. The latter incident was perceived as an act of revenge for the failure of the motion in Turkey’s parliament that would have allowed the U.S. to open a northern front in the Iraq war from Turkish soil.
From then onwards, Turkey-U.S. military relations took a backseat while political relations improved due to the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) initial reform agenda. When President Barack Obama came to office, he even promoted Turkey as a strategic ally and model country in the region with its democratic, secular and Muslim identity.
But the tide started to turn around 2013. The government’s harsh crackdown on protesters during the Gezi demonstrations raised doubts about Ankara’s commitment to democracy and human rights. The two countries also found themselves on opposite sides when Egypt’s military staged a coup. Moreover, Obama’s failure to respond to a chemical attack in Syria greatly disappointed Ankara, which had invested a lot politically in toppling Bashar al-Assad.
The allies diverged further over Syria. In particular, the U.S. cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara sees as the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), deeply eroded trust.
The failed coup attempt of July 2016 dealt another severe blow to bilateral relations. The fact that the alleged mastermind of the coup, Fethullah Gülen, is based in Pennsylvania, and that many of the alleged putschists had NATO links, reinforced the perception that the U.S. might have supported the coup (despite denials from Washington).
Still, despite everything Ankara was hoping to obtain a better deal from President Donald Trump. However, those expectations have been quashed by a typical misreading of U.S. politics that attributes too much power to the president while ignoring the countervailing power of institutions and pressure groups.
The result is that the list of issues has only grown longer under Trump, driving Turkey and the U.S. further apart. For instance, arrest warrants have been issued for former Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, as well as the CEO and deputy CEO of state bank Halkbank, as part of the case into Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman arrested in Miami on charges of undermining economic sanctions on Iran. The probe may lead to charges against other high-level politicians and businessmen in Turkey.
So far Ankara’s demands for the extradition of Gülen and the release of Zarrab have been turned down, on the grounds that it would amount to interfering in the legal process and harm the separation of powers.
Against this background, there are more worrisome trends that should not be overlooked, such as Turkey’s deteriorating image abroad and rising anti-American sentiment in Turkish society. The recent visa crisis, which mirrors similar tension with Germany, solidifies the perception that Turkey has been taking hostages for political ends.
On the other hand, as long as the U.S. persists in ignoring or downplaying Turkey’s security concerns, the escalation of anti-Americanism may act as a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in an actual shift of axis. And when that happens we will be discussing a NATO crisis instead.