Turkish officials caught unprepared by the US visa spat

Published 12.10.2017 02:09

The Turkish-U.S. visa spat triggered by the U.S. decision to suspend its non-immigrant visa services in Turkey is a historic low in bilateral relations. The U.S. government said it took this step because Turkish courts are issuing arrest orders for Turkish staff members at U.S. Consulates on charges of aiding terrorist groups.

However, we know that the U.S. government had other grievances that led to this showdown. American officials complain about the fact that they cannot provide consular service to arrested Turkish-American citizens. They were also bothered by Ankara's decision to cancel the operational licenses of American aid groups and refusing to renew residence permits or work permits of U.S. aid workers. On top of this, there is the separate case of pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been in Turkish custody since the failed coup attempt last year on charges of terrorism. U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have asked the Turkish government for his release since their first meetings with Turkish officials. Trump has even assigned his personal lawyer to the case. So, the water was already boiling.

But yet, Turkish officials say they were not informed in advance about the U.S. decision. Were they not, really?

The answer is a bit blurred. One American official said U.S. ambassador to Ankara John Bass was very clear to Turkish officials last week, that he warned them there would be serious consequences if they continue to arrest Turkish staff members at U.S. missions. The American official believes the U.S. could gain nothing by concealing the visa decision from Turkish officials, therefore Ankara were told about what was coming. Bass also publicly made clear to Turkish staff members last Friday that the U.S. was going to do everything it can to protect its employees and that this would escalate.

In contrast to this, we can note that Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Saturday. Çavuşoğlu later told Turkish journalists that Tillerson raised issues related to consular affairs. Three Turkish officials with whom I spoke separately told me that American officials did not let Çavuşoğlu or any other Turkish diplomat know about the forthcoming visa step.

But they all agreed that American officials had expressed their deep concerns about the arrested Turkish staff members of American missions before the visa decision.

One American official said on Tuesday that Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon called his Turkish counterpart before the visa rupture to inform him about the upcoming U.S. steps. Yet, another Turkish official said this call was made after the weekend, meaning after the visa announcement.

Clearly, Turkish officials were completely unprepared. Some of them were baffled by the U.S. reaction. Even the Russian government, a historic American foe, did not get such treatment following their apparent attempts to manipulate the 2016 presidential elections.

Turkish officials were able to make mid-level contacts with their American counterparts after the weekend, but Ankara could not reach any high-level official in Washington. No doubt the U.S. State Department chose the timing wisely. The decision was announced on a Sunday, and Monday was a federal holiday in the U.S. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Tuesday that his government could not reach senior American officials. This was partly important for Ankara because there was an understanding that the visa spat was the State Department's own conduct, rather than something ordered by the White House. It seems like this suspicion may not be warranted.

A Trump administration official said the White House was fully briefed about the visa decision. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Tuesday that all was done in coordination with the White House and the National Security Council.

Lastly, there are signs that there were other factors that provoked Washington, such as Erdoğan's latest visit to Trump's main antagonist Iran, and later on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's trip to Ankara. Every Turkey analyst also cites Erdoğan's suggestion to swap Fetullah Gülen with Pastor Brunson as something that was very inconvenient and frustrating for the White House.

Turks failed to foresee what was coming. It is now clear that Washington takes the security of its employees and citizens very seriously and will not step back until it gets what it wants.

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