The accelerated rise of a neo-Medieval order in the Middle East was emphasized in this column, whereby established alliance formations are deconstructed and variable networks of issue-based partnerships emerge among unlikely partners. This post-Arab Spring, neo-Medieval order is also open to unexpected crises, surprising aggravation of tensions and escalating spats among previously strong strategic partners. The unfolding of a grave crisis last week in U.S.-Turkish relations leading to the mutual suspension of all nonimmigrant visa services provided an unfortunate illustration of our point.
Ankara and Washington D.C. have been experiencing an ever-growing strategic divergence on critical issues such as the configuration of Iraq and Syria after the Arab revolutions and civil wars, definition of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria as a terrorist organization, and Turkey's initiative to purchase an air defense system from outside NATO. Deepening divergence of strategic interests crystallized in Syria as the U.S. continued to define the PYD as its ground force and provide it with up-to-date weapons, while Turkey had to accelerate her rapprochement with Russia into the purchase of the S-400 air defense system. Ankara also found the American position on the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) independence referendum quite ambiguous, thinking that there was a clandestine strategy to link the KRG in northern Iraq with the PYD in northern Syria to form an energy corridor that totally bypassed Turkey.
But the straw that finally broke the camel's back between the two capitals came through grave disagreements concerning the role of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) in the July 15 failed coup attempt last year. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish government were resolute to see the U.S. administration taking concrete steps for the trial or extradition of the terror group's leader, but it was frankly embarrassing to witness that thousands of pages of evidence submitted to American authorities have fallen on deaf ears. Then, there was the case of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was kept under custody in Turkey since the failed coup attempt on charges of collaboration with terrorism. Finally, the recent arrest of Metin Topuz, a civilian communications officer and a Turkish citizen from the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, for his alleged links with FETÖ aroused the strongest reaction from the Trump administration. Apparently, Topuz was one of the key individuals who provided communication channels between FETÖ elements in Turkish security and judicial forces and international interlocutors who supported the coup attempt. Deepening interrogations into the role of Topuz and his collaborators in the coup attempt triggered another arrest warrant for a civilian consulate employee; but the situation turned into a tit-for-tat game when that employee was kept within the consulate to be protected from the Turkish police.
Turkey and the U.S. have been close allies since the immediate aftermath of World War II when Ankara decided to join the Western camp of the Cold War confrontation. There were several instances when bilateral relations went through rough patches and the strategic alliance was jeopardized; i.e. the infamous "Johnson Letter" and the U.S. arms embargo following the military operation to Northern Cyprus. The latest spat triggered by the shocking decision of the U.S. authorities to suspend all nonimmigrant visa services represent one of the deepest crisis points in the 70-year history of the alliance. Given the fact that the U.S. did not consider following such a tough course of action against Russia despite claims for its meddling with the latest U.S. presidential elections, Ankara feels that this harsh treatment is not at all justified. The restoration of mutual trust between both parties and a full-scale normalization could take a pretty long time, following the perceptive and sociopsychological damage exerted by the crisis.
Especially the Turkish side was truly shocked by the severity of the American response in the absence of any proper warnings. As a NATO ally hosting major military bases, conducting extensive security and intelligence cooperation with the U.S. against global terrorism and a major economic power that just signed an agreement for the purchase of civilian aircraft from American Boeing worth $11 billion, Turkey is hardly a "rogue state." Despite the catalogue of problems and disagreements with Washington, both President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım emphasized that American policy responses shall respect the sovereignty and dignity of the Turkish state and national pride of the Turkish society. Turkey rightly desires to maintain a respectable and equitable relationship with the U.S. and would not accept to be bullied for anything.
Going forward, American ambiguity on FETÖ and the U.S. support for the PYD are likely to generate further tensions in bilateral relations. The Trump administration needs to come to terms with the urgency that Turkey attaches to the fight against FETÖ and prevent the chief architect of the failed coup and the bulk of his entourage to live in comfort on U.S. soil. Likewise, fabricated court cases pursued against the deputy general manager of Halkbank for allegedly breaching American sanctions against Iran and the personal security guards of President Erdoğan are deeply hurting mutual trust. The current visa crisis is likely to cool down gradually through sensible shuttle diplomacy, but it will certainly take intensive collaboration and concrete steps to restore the dented mutual trust among the two capitals.