Turkey-US ties on tightrope as tougher challenges forthcoming

Source:Xinhua Published: 2017/10/12 9:35:11

The latest moves by the United States and Turkey to halt visa services for each other's citizens are the culmination of unresolved issues between the two NATO allies, analysts told Xinhua.

"The current situation can be described as the initial phase of a crisis," said Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations with the Ankara-based Middle East Technical University.

"SERIOUS THRESHOLD IN BILATERAL TIES"

The already chilly relations between Washington and Ankara went south further after the US Embassy in Ankara announced on Sunday an immediate suspension of all non-immigrant visa services for Turks, prompting Turkey to respond in kind only hours later.

The US move came after Metin Topuz, a Turkish national working with the US consulate in Istanbul, was arrested last week over charges of espionage and links to a network accused by Ankara of being behind last year's coup attempt.

"The situation represents a serious threshold in bilateral ties," said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

The US decision to suspend visa applications should not be taken lightly considering Turkey is a NATO ally, underlined Ulgen, a former diplomat.

The friction between the two allies came to a head at a time when Turkey has been knitting closer ties with Russia and Iran, both adversaries of Washington for the moment.

Since the summer of 2016, Ankara has been acting in cooperation with Moscow and Tehran in the Syrian theater rather than with Washington.

Turkey and Iran have agreed to increase cooperation for regional security following recent visits by their top soldiers and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's trip to Tehran on Oct 4.

In addition, the two neighbors have concluded a deal to use local currencies in bilateral trade, a move not expected to please Washington as such a trend would damage the US dollars' dominance in world trade.

The Turkish move to buy Russia's sophisticated S-400 air defense missiles despite US concern is another source of annoyance for Washington.

Though Turkey and the US went through stormy periods in the past, this is noticeably the first time Ankara is facing such a sanction by its NATO partner.

"So deep a confidence crisis in the Turkish-US ties has been very rare," noted Ulgen. "This is pushing the limits of a relationship between allies."

Though extremely disturbed by Turkey's rapprochement with Russia and Iran, the United States is aware that there is not much it can do about it, said Haldun Solmazturk, a retired general with the Turkish military.

More importantly, he maintained, Washington knows a coalition of the three would not be able to stop at this stage its major plan for the region -- the creation of a Kurdish state.

Another staffer in the US consulate in Istanbul, also a Turkish citizen, was summoned on Monday to testify, as his wife and child were detained over alleged links to the network led by the US-based Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen, who is accused by Ankara of masterminding a failed coup in July last year.

Washington's slowness in offering support to its ally following the coup and refusal to turn over Gulen have contributed much to a worsening relationship with Turkey, where many believe the US played a role in the putsch.

"The US will not hand over Gulen," Bagci said. "The differences of opinion between the two sides are hard to eliminate."

DIFFICULT TO COORDINATE POLICIES

In the eyes of Solmazturk, the current standoff between the two NATO partners is a first-rate crisis.

He agreed, like the other analysts, that Topuz's arrest is the last straw that broke the camel's back amid an ongoing tension in bilateral ties.

"The current standoff is the result of (mutual) disappointments in ties that have built up in the past couple of years," echoed Ulgen.

Ankara and Washington are known to have serious differences of opinion on a number of issues, including the latter's continued arming of Kurdish fighters in Syria, who are seen by Turkey as terrorists.

"From now on, it will be difficult for the two countries to coordinate their policies regarding the region," remarked Ulgen.

"The Turkish and US interests in the Middle East are in conflict, but it was possible, though difficult, to reconcile them," said Solmazturk, who currently chairs the Incek debates at the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute.

He feels that the Turkish government, seeing it had failed to reconcile both sides' interests, may have chosen to increase tension with the US with a view to winning over nationalists in the presidential and parliamentary elections due in 2019.

Bagci echoed, saying "this course of action may win over votes for Erdogan in domestic politics. Anti-Americanism pays in Turkey." According to a poll released by Pew Research Center in August, as many as 72 percent of Turks saw the United States as a top threat, the highest in the world.

The ruling party would like to take advantage of the rising anti-Americanism at a time when its votes are on the decline, remarked Solmazturk.

As the number of disagreements between Ankara and Washington increases, so is the extent of damage they could inflict on each other, cautioned Bagci.

He feels, however, Turkey would be much more negatively affected, as most of NATO countries should be expected to act in concert with the US

Turkey's Hurriyet daily reported on Tuesday night that US President Donald Trump talked about Turkey, Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in his meetings the same day with his secretaries of defense and state.

This piece of information is seen as an indication that Washington may have started to see Ankara in the same category as Tehran and Pyongyang, which were described as rogue regimes by Trump in his address to the UN General Assembly last month.

The Trump administration may create problems for Turkey in the Middle East, said Solmazturk.

The Turkish economy, already fragile due to an increasing foreign debt, a substantial current account deficit and huge dependence on foreign capital for growth, may well suffer as a result.

The Turkish lira and the stock market have significantly plummeted in the wake of the visa spat.

CRISIS EXPECTED TO GROW

All the analysts expect the crisis to grow in the short run, but without doing much damage to the partnership ties in the NATO.

Likening the standoff to a row that relatives in a family may have from time to time, Bagci said "this standoff has nothing to do with the NATO."

The analysts do not expect Ankara to stop the US forces from using the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey.

Shutting Washington out of the base would mean Ankara being weaned from US nuclear protection, noted Bagci. "No Turkish government would take such a risk," he added.

The Incirlik base is known to stockpile US nuclear weapons.

"I don't think President Erdogan would take a radical step such as banning US use of the base," Solmazturk said.

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that its military operations and personnel in Turkey were not affected by the visa standoff.

Solmazturk feels that as the Turkish government failed to foresee the consequences, it is trying to end the crisis at the earliest or at least minimize it.

President Erdogan tended to put the blame on the US ambassador to Ankara, saying on Tuesday that it is strange for the envoy to have taken such a decision and say he was acting in the name of his government.

"If our ambassador did that, we would not keep him there even a minute," the president remarked.

Heather Nauert, spokesperson for the US Department of State, stated the same day that the visa suspension was taken in coordination with the department, the White House and the National Security Agency.

Maintaining that the US sees no evidence of the involvement of the accused consulate staffers in any criminal activity, she said allowing them to see their lawyers would be a good starting point if Ankara wants Washington to cancel its visa decision.

A decrease in tension is possible only if Ankara changes its discourse, said Bagci.

Back in March, Hamza Ulucay, a Turkish translator working for the US consulate in Adana, was arrested on charges of having links with outlawed Kurdish militants.

Solmazturk believes that the real reason behind the recent arrest of the US consulate staffer is the two Turkish figures, who are currently in prison in the United States.

Reza Zarrab and Hakan Atilla, a Turkish citizen of Iranian origin and a deputy general manager of Turkey's state-owned Halkbank respectively, face charges in a US court of violating UN sanctions against Iran and money laundering.

The US court also issued an arrest warrant for Zafer Caglayan, a former Turkish minister of economy who is in Turkey.

Noting there is also risk for Erdogan and some of his family members to be implicated as suspects in the ongoing US court case, Solmzturk said "the arrest of the US consulate staffer is a move by the Turkish government signaling that Ankara may also take some steps against the United States."

Zarrab and Halkbank also faced a judicial investigation on similar charges in Turkey following two graft probes in December 2013. The judicial proceedings against them were dropped after the prosecutors in charge were replaced by the Turkish government.

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party headed by Erdogan said the corruption probes were aimed at overthrowing the government.


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