How to overcome the Turkey-US visa crisis

Published 11.10.2017 01:17

The tense relationship between Washington and Ankara has been further strained by a decision by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara to suspend non-immigrant visa services on Sunday.

A written statement issued on Twitter said: "Recent events forced the United States Government to reassess the commitment of the Government of Turkey to the security of U.S. Mission facilities and personnel." In line with the principle of reciprocity, Ankara responded to Washington's decision by suspending non-immigrant visa services at its diplomatic missions in the United States.

Although the most recent crisis in Turkish-U.S. relations was sparked by the arrest of a U.S. Consulate employee, American officials considered the earlier arrest of pastor Andrew Branson over alleged links to the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) a prelude to the visa crisis. U.S. officials seem to believe that Turkey detained the U.S. citizens and consulate employees to secure the extradition of Fetullah Gülen and his close associates. Moreover, senior officials at certain government agencies in Washington have reportedly been calling for tougher measures to be taken against Ankara, citing the perceived weakness of the U.S. response to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Recalling the growing anti-American rhetoric in the Turkish media, the advocates of a strong response to Turkey's actions have effectively taken the narrative against Erdoğan to the next level by providing new ammunition to voices against Turkey in the U.S. media and suggesting that the Turkish leader has humiliated the United States with his actions. As such, it would appear that the hardliners seek to appeal to the patriotic side of the American people in order to ride the wave of anti-Erdoğan thought. Needless to say, nationalist fervor has been running high among Turks, who are frustrated with Washington's failure to extradite Gülen – the July 15 coup attempt's mastermind – and military support for the People's Protection Units (YPG) – the militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the PKK terrorist organization's affiliate in Syria. Moving forward, the current nationalist and reactionary atmosphere will not only fail to address the current crisis, but also jeopardize Turkish-U.S. cooperation in various areas where rational cooperation remains possible.

The current, structural crisis in Turkish-U.S. relations has been kept under control so far thanks to the commitment of Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump to work together. Over the past year, the two leaders have been trying to make progress by isolating problem areas. However, it has been long clear that Trump, unable to consolidate his power in Washington, failed to develop new policies on Middle East and Turkey, as opposed to following in his predecessor's footsteps. As such, their personal relationship helped Turkey and the U.S. avoid new tensions, although the broader crisis could not be overcome. The most recent visa crisis, by contrast, suggests that U.S. agencies have started taking steps that could weaken the shared resolve of the two presidents. Going forward, Trump could face a type of nationalist pressure to take action against Turkey. Personally, I find it extremely problematic that U.S. officials, who are not fond of Trump, would introduce this kind of irrational behavior to Turkish-U.S. relations.

The Turkish-American alliance has already suffered setbacks due to the Syrian civil war and FETÖ. The situation is so complicated that Turkey and the United States, both NATO allies, are unable to launch a joint operation against Daesh positions in Raqqa, whereas Ankara have been able to work with Moscow to launch the Astana process, create de-escalation zones and conduct a military operation in Idlib. At the same time, Ankara has purchased S-400 missile defense systems from Moscow. It is meaningless to try and account the problems in Turkish-U.S. relations with reference to Erdoğan's ideological predispositions. At this point, what Washington likes to call tactical decisions, such as its support for YPG militants and FETÖ, which are consider vital threats by policymakers in Turkey. To make matters worse, former U.S. President Barrack Obama's administration's Syria policy hurt Turkish interests to such an extent that Ankara finally started looking for a solution by reaching out to their adversaries.

Right now, fueling tensions by appealing to nationalist sentiments will not serve the interests of either side. Moving forward, Washington must take the time to understand Turkey's frustration and engage in qualified cooperation with Ankara in certain areas. A review of Washington's policy on FETÖ, for instance, could go a long way. The recent disclosure of incriminating evidence against Kemal Batmaz, a known Gülenist who was apprehended at the failed coup's headquarters, should be the beginning of a new chapter in this area. The visa crisis could and should be the start of concrete progress instead of deepening the existing crisis in Turkish-U.S. relations.

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