October 6, 2017 | Policy Brief

Diplomatic Spat Erupts Between Ankara and U.S. Over Arrest

October 6, 2017 | Policy Brief

Diplomatic Spat Erupts Between Ankara and U.S. Over Arrest

A controversy erupted this week between Washington and Ankara over Turkey’s arrest of a U.S. consulate employee in Istanbul. The employee, a Turkish national identified only by the initials M.T., was arrested on charges of espionage and attempts to “destroy” the constitutional order and Turkey’s government.

M.T. is not the only Turkish aide of the United States ensnared in the post-coup crackdown. Hamza Ulucay, a local translator for the U.S. consulate in Adana, was arrested in March for “terrorism” and “inciting the public to revolt” – a Turkish legal euphemism to validate the incarceration of Kurdish citizens in times of crisis.        

However, unlike in March when Washington remained somewhat muted in its response, the U.S. diplomatic corps is now incensed. Following M.T.’s arrest on Wednesday, the embassy in Ankara issued a scathing statement that it was “deeply disturbed” by the detention, considered the allegations to be “wholly without merit,” and warned that “baseless, anonymous allegations against our employees undermine and devalue this longstanding partnership.”

An even more damning statement, however, came from departing Ambassador John Bass on Friday. Bass, who derided Ankara for blatantly undermining rule of law, expressed his contempt for the Turkish government for “trying the case” through a media campaign. “That does not strike me as pursuing justice,” Bass warned, “It seems to me more a pursuit of vengeance.”

The ambassador’s reaction was long overdue. At least six U.S. citizens, including journalists and academics, have been detained in Turkey since last year’s failed coup. Two remain in prison: Pastor Andrew Brunson, who lived in Turkey for over twenty years without incident until his arrest last October, is accused of “membership in an armed terrorist organization” and of assisting the coup. Serkan Goke, a Turkish-American physicist at NASA, arrested in August 2016 while on vacation in Turkey, was accused of “espionage” and “terrorism.”

These arrests also come amidst more than a year of anti-American propaganda by Turkey’s pro-government media, which has accused the CIA, the Obama administration, and even American scholars in Turkey of taking part in last year’s failed coup. 

The invective, which helps further stir xenophobic nationalism in Turkey, has been invaluable for legitimizing the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's one-man rule at home. But the arrests of U.S. nationals and their allies are increasingly hard for Washington to ignore. Despite positive comments from the Trump administration, all is not well with the Turkish-American alliance. Similar tensions are brewing between Turkey and Germany, and other European countries over Turkish arrests of their citizens and similar xenophobic and anti-Western rhetoric. All of this puts Turkey’s role as a Western ally increasingly in doubt. 

Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on Turkey. Follow her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu.