The U.S. and Turkey suspended visa services for each other’s citizens this weekend. The crisis represents the most serious deterioration of bilateral ties in the last half-century – since the U.S. arms embargo against Turkey after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the 1970s.
It all began last Wednesday when Turkish authorities arrested a Turkish employee of the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, charging him with espionage and coup-plotting. This was the second arrest this year of a Turkish aide at a U.S. mission, and outgoing U.S. Ambassador John Bass responded with a harsh condemnation of the arrest.
On Sunday, tensions escalated further when the U.S. embassy in Ankara announced its suspension of all non-immigrant visa services in Turkey so that it could “reassess the commitment of the Government of Turkey to the security of U.S. Mission facilities and personnel.” The next day, Turkey declared its suspension of visa services for U.S. citizens and summoned the U.S. deputy chief of mission, asking him “to secure ‘immediate relief’ to the unjust treatment of Turkish citizens.”
Bass soon issued another statement, clarifying that the move was not “a visa ban on Turkish citizens.” It is a temporary measure, unlike the indefinite restrictions the Trump administration placed on Iranians, Syrians, and others in late September. And unlike President Trump’s executive order from February, which threatened to revoke 60,000 visas, the suspension of visa services in Turkey does not affect existing visas, nor does it deny visa services to Turkish citizens outside of Turkey. However, the move undeniably impacts Turkish students, businesspeople, and others seeking access to the United States.
New reports now indicate that Ankara may seek the arrest of a third consular aide, whose wife and child were detained on Tuesday to pressure him into leave the U.S. diplomatic compound.
This diplomatic crisis cannot be viewed in isolation. Two U.S. citizens – a pastor and a physicist – are currently jailed in Turkey on dubious charges, and Ankara appears unwilling to release them, while simultaneously calling for the release of high-profile Turks jailed in America on legitimate charges. American and European officials are now calling it “hostage diplomacy.”
But the crisis runs even deeper than this. Significant foreign policy disputes over the fate of the Kurds in Syria, coupled with domestic policy concerns regarding the overall erosion of Turkish democracy, have placed great strain on U.S.-Turkish ties.
Thus far, American statements have been limited to consular affairs and the Turkish treatment of its own citizens working for U.S. missions. But the unprecedented actions by the State Department seem to indicate that the United States is growing increasingly impatient with the authoritarian behaviors exhibited by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which have gone unchecked for far too long. This is a welcomed shift on the part of the Trump administration.
Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on Turkey. Follow her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.