Relations between the U.S. and Turkey took a nosedive over the weekend, with the two countries suspending visa issuances for each other in a diplomatic tit-for-tat that could have dangerous repercussions.
Longtime allies, the suspensions are the latest barb in a steady decline in relations over the last couple of years, at a time when both face dangerous new threats.
The U.S. was first to halt visas, releasing a statement on Twitter Sunday that said the U.S. has been “forced” to reassess Turkey’s “commitment … to the security of U.S. Mission facilities and personnel.”
“In order to minimize the number of visitors to our Embassy and Consulates while this assessment proceeds, effective immediately we have suspended all nonimmigrant visa services at all U.S. diplomatic facilities in Turkey,” they said.
The announcement came just three days after Turkey charged a Turkish national who worked at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, although the State Department didn’t explicitly link the two.
The man, identified as Metin Topuz, is charged for alleged ties to the Gulenist movement — followers of Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher who is a legal permanent resident in exile in the U.S. and is blamed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a failed coup attempt last summer. Gulen has denied involvement, but Erdogan has cracked down on Gulen’s supporters, other political opponents and journalists since then.
The U.S., however, has called any charges against Topuz “wholly without merit” and “deeply” disturbing, according to a statement from the U.S. mission. “We are in contact with law enforcement to determine the reason for that arrest,” a State Department official added last week.
This is the U.S.’s second local employee to be arrested this year, after Hamza Ulucay was arrested in March, reportedly for ties to the Kurdish terror group the PKK. An employee of the U.S. consulate in Adana, he is still being detained by Turkish authorities.
Turkey said neither men had diplomatic immunity as Turkish citizens and dismissed the condemnations from the U.S.
But hours after the U.S. made the announcement about visas, Turkey tweeted their own message Sunday, seeming to echo much of the language.
“Recent Events have forced the Turkish Government to reassess the commitment of the Government of the U.S. to the security of the Turkish Mission facilities and personnel,” the statement read in part.
“In order to minimize the number of visitors to our diplomatic and consular missions in the U.S. while this assessment proceeds, effective immediately we have suspended all visa services regarding the U.S. citizens at our diplomatic and consular missions in the U.S.,” it added.
The bickering comes at a particularly fraught moment between the U.S. and its key NATO ally where America has an airbase vital to the fight against ISIS and home to a stockpile of 50 nuclear bombs.
Turkey has been incensed and increasingly willing to lash out over America’s support for Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria who are fighting ISIS. The U.S. won’t abandon them because they are the strongest fighting forces, although like Turkey, America has labeled the Kurdish separatist group within Turkey’s borders, the PKK, a terrorist group.
In the face of America’s support, Turkey has grown increasingly closer to Iran, which has its own Kurdish population seeking independence that it wants to suppress. Erdogan appeared alongside Ayatollah Khomeini last week, denouncing the referendum by the Kurds in Iraq.
Turkey’s cooperation is also crucial for the U.S. as it tries to interdict Westerners traveling in and out of Syria to fight with ISIS and al Qaeda’s affiliate, especially as ISIS crumbles on the battlefield and many of those foreign fighters are fleeing. That cooperation could now be jeopardized.