ISTANBUL - Turkish-U.S. tensions continue to escalate, with Ankara imposing a suspension on the issuance of visas for most American citizens in retaliation to a similar move by Washington. The tit for tat dispute hit Turkey’s financial markets, as fears grow over long-term fall out.
“Its unheard of, even at the worst times between the two countries no such thing happened [like this] before, in that sense its looks very serious,” warned political scientist Cengiz Aktar.
The dispute erupted with last week’s arrest on terrorism charges of Metin Topuz, a local employee at the U.S. Istanbul consulate. Turkish prosecutors' accuse Topuz of being linked to followers of the U.S. based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who they blame for last year’s failed coup.
Monday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. deputy chief of mission, and according to local media reports demanded “ immediate relief” on Washington’s restriction on issuing of visas.
Umit Yalcin, Turkish Foreign Ministry undersecretary, reportedly spoke by phone with U.S. Ambassador John Bass.
The ruling AK Party has stepped up its war of words against Bass, “Get out Bass, leave us” declared AK Party deputy head, Hamza Dag. Bass is due to leave Turkey for a post in Afghanistan.
Tensions could be set to escalate further with the Istanbul Prosecutors Office announcing a new arrest warrant has been issued for another local employed at the U.S. Istanbul consulate, and that the wanted man’s wife and son have been detained.
“This crisis has just entered yet another new level in the ever increasing tensions between Ankara and Washington," says political scientist Aktar. "Turkey is demanding many things from the American administration. This crisis is a sum of all these outstanding issues.”
Ankara is increasingly voicing frustration over Washington’s failure to extradite Gulen, whose followers are blamed for last year’s coup. But Washington insists the extradition is a matter for the courts. Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, views such explanations as an excuse, claiming Turkey has sent many wanted people back to the United States.
The dispute is resurrecting suspicions widely voiced in the pro-government media that Washington was involved in last year’s coup, a charge it strongly denies.
Washington’s suspicions are growing that the detention of local staff could be politically driven.
Eleven U.S. citizens have been held in connection with last year's failed coup, including pastor Andrew Brunson, who on Monday saw his first year anniversary in jail without being charged.
Erdogan last month appeared to directly link Brunson’s detention to the Gulen case, “'Give us the pastor back,’ they [Washington] say. You have one pastor [Gulen] as well. Give him to us,” Erdogan said in a speech on September 28 at the presidential palace.
Until now, simmering bilateral tensions between the NATO allies had been largely kept out of the public domain.
“I think now we are as close as we have ever been,” U.S. President Donald Trump said last month of relations with Turkey, while meeting Erdogan. “He’s [Erdogan] running a very difficult part of the world. Frankly, he’s getting high marks,” Trump added.
But the eruption of U.S.-Turkish tensions into the public domain, shocked the Turkey's financial markets. Both the lira and stock markets recorded heavy falls.
“The visa decision of the United States against Turkey is a very unfortunate development," wrote the Turkish Business and Industry Association (TUSIAD), which represents Turkey’s largest companies, “This crisis should be eased to foster mutual trust and constructive dialogue by not giving any room to hit the bilateral ties in the first place. Then, the disagreements need to be resolved in the fastest possible time.”
With Turkey bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria, as well as hosting the largest U.S. military airbase in the region, Incirlik, analysts suggests it will be in the interest of both sides to calm tensions. "Turkey and America are so intertwined strategically that it's very difficult to separate at the moment," notes political columnist Semih Idiz of Al Monitor website.
But the long term consequences of the present tensions could be far reaching, “I think America is very seriously reviewing its partnership in the region. Structurally the dice are thrown, [but] the American administration, Republicans and Democrats do not consider Turkey as a reliable partner,“ says political scientist Aktar. “But the dilemma for Washington is not to push Turkey into the lap of Moscow."
Ultimately, observers predict the real winner of the current spat will be Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been working hard to pry Turkey apart from its NATO partners.