By Abraham Thicke
On 8th October, the US suspended most visa services in Turkey. An opaquely worded statement justified this step by expressing doubts about Turkish commitments to provide security for staff working at US diplomatic facilities. The real reasons behind the suspension lie in increasingly troubled relations between Turkey and the US.
A key issue in understanding what has occurred relates to the Turkish regime’s desire to secure the return to Turkey of three individuals currently in the US, Reza Zarrab ( Iranian-Turkish businessman, charged in federal court with conspiring to evade American sanctions against Iran) and Halkbank’s Deputy General Manager Mehmet Hakan Atilla (accused of helping Zarrab’s scheme) and Fetullah Gülen, each for quite different reasons.
Gülen’s return is sought on the grounds of his apparent role in organizing last year’s failed coup attempt. Zarrab, a dual Iranian-Turkish national, is on trial in the US for his alleged involvement in a scheme that aimed to bypass US sanctions on Iran. Also implicated are numerous Turkish officials, including former ministers. Turkey’s motivations with respect to Zarrab seem to be damage limitation. Atilla also can be considered as a package deal along with Zarrab.
Turkish attempts to get hold of these three men via the usual channels have been unsuccessful. To gain more leverage, the Turkish regime initiated a dangerous game. This involved arresting US citizens in Turkey and local staff at US consulates, with the intention of exchanging them for Zarrab and/or Gülen. This sounds incredible. Turkey is, after all, a NATO member and a nominal US ally. But Turkey’s President Erdoğan has all but confirmed this is the case.
For the US, the straw that broke the camel’s back appears to have been the recent detention of a Turkish member of its consular staff in Istanbul on charges of espionage and sedition.
Plus ça change? Why this crisis is different
Diplomatic crises are ten-a-penny for Ankara. Indeed, Ibrahim Kalın, Erdoğan’s spokesman, coined the term ‘precious loneliness’ in 2013 to describe the regime’s penchant for alienating just about everyone. The crises usually follow a pattern; first whipped-up to play to the xenophobic and nationalistic tendencies of the regime’s core domestic supporters and then, if possible, quietly deflated when no-one’s looking. Turkey comes out of each crisis weaker than before.
This crisis feels different, though not because Turkey is likely to emerge with enhanced standing. America is the world’s leading power, and has responded to what it views as the latest Turkish provocation not with its usual words but with actions that have immediate and painful consequences.
Figures within the Turkish regime who view ties to the US, and the West in general, as an important source of stability will be alarmed. But they may struggle to make their voices heard. In Turkey all decisions are made by Erdoğan and his key advisors are ‘yes’ men. So Turkey’s response will doubtless be calibrated to serve Erdoğan’s primary preoccupation, namely shoring-up his own power.
It is unlikely the Turkish regime saw this move coming. When he recently met with US President Trump, Erdoğan’s vanity, not to mention his self-admitted gullibility, probably ensured he took the massaging of his ego at face value. But, US politics is not as personalized as politics in Turkey, and Trump’s isolation within the US government is such that his words carry not so much weight beyond his office door.
An indication of the unexpected nature of the US actions can be gauged by the reaction of the regime’s well-oiled propaganda organs. Their initial silence was eloquent, suggesting they had not received instructions about how to frame the story. When they got their act together, they blamed the crisis on John Bass, the outgoing US ambassador in Turkey. Erdoğan, meanwhile, limited himself to a few subdued comments during a trip to the Ukraine. His top diplomat, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, feebly called for the ban to be lifted. If only life were so simple!
Turkey did, however, manage to produce an immediate reaction — as opposed to a response — to the US measures. This was an entirely predictable ploy, imported from the rough streets of Istanbul’s Kasimpasa district where Erdoğan grew up and where honour prohibits backward steps. It involved unimaginatively reciprocating the US’s restrictions. The wording of the Turkish statement was copy-pasted from the earlier US declaration.
Such reactions will make things worse. This crisis, to repeat what has been stated earlier, feels different. Words have already given way to action.
Turkey now finds itself in the unfortunate, though entirely self-made, position of having goaded a bigger, stronger opponent into a fight. By squaring up to the US, Ankara is just exposing itself to more punishment. The lira and the Turkish bourse both plummeted as the story broke.
Turkey’s economy is already fragile.
The US is unlikely to back down until it gets what it wants. If Turkey does not blink, things could get very painful, very quickly. The only comparable situation in recent Turkish history is the Russian jet crisis of 2015. This did not end well for Ankara, with the negative consequences still resonating in Turkey. The US has far more leverage over Turkey than Russia had at that time. Amongst other things it largely finances, along with Europe, Turkey’s current account deficit.
Still, as long as he can keep the lights burning in his palaces and the presidential jet in good working order, Erdoğan might decide that severe hardships for the average Turk, dressed up in appropriately jingoistic terms by the regime’s propaganda, are a price worth paying to save face.
Too little, too late
Ironically, America’s abrupt and harsh diplomatic measures come at a time when, following a bruising few months, the Turkish regime has started to make some conciliatory noises to the West. As the US has voiced disapproval at a recent Turkish decision to buy a Russian air defence system, Turkey has intimated that it may, after all, buy a similar US system. Regime officials have also expressed an interest in repairing battered relations with Germany.
This may be too little, too late. US patience with Ankara seems to have run its course. The EU, which has been issuing its own threats of late, might scent blood. With its credibility in ruins and no fund of Western goodwill to tap into, the Turkish regime’s wiggle room is limited. If Ankara does not back down, then Russia may extend a helping hand. But even if it were to do so, Russia cannot immediately replace Turkey dependence on the US, exposing Turkey to immense economic risks.
The situation does not look promising. The crisis may play out like the jet crisis, with a Turkish climb-down: but Erdoğan knows that any hint of weakness would invite more demands from the long list of Western grievances. Or it may escalate, leading US-Turkish relations into uncharted territory.
One thing is already clear. Turkey has joined a select band of countries whose citizens are barred from visiting the US for recreation, education or business. Those countries are Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Yemen and Venezuela, whose President was recently Erdoğan’s guest. Kim Jong-Un may well have started Turkish lessons.
If countries, like people, can be judged by the company they keep, then the ‘New’ Turkey Erdoğan so often boasts about has found its level — at the bottom of the pile.