America’s bilateral relationship with Turkey has suffered gravely in the months since Donald Trump became president. Dynamics that began years ago have intensified in recent weeks, resulting in a U.S.-Turkish relationship that looks more adversarial every day.
On Sunday, the U.S. mission in Ankara announced that it had halted all non-immigrant visa services. That means no more tourists or short-term visitors from Turkey will be entering the United States anytime soon. Turkey’s embassy in Washington D.C. soon reciprocated, suspending all U.S. visa applications from America.
This quarrel was prompted by Turkey’s arrest of a United States embassy employee, who Turkish officials allege had information on America’s involvement in and support for a 2016 coup attempt that failed to oust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan insists that the coup was the work of Turks loyal to Fethullah Gülen, a 76-year-old former imam who lives in exile in the Poconos. Those insurrectionary Gülenists, Erdoğan has alleged, are funded and supported by the United States.
Turkey detained another U.S. consulate employee on Monday, along with his wife and son. The following day, Erdoğan told a conference of reporters that the U.S. consulate staffers in Turkish custody were spies. He went further, accusing outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass of deliberately sabotaging relations between the two countries. As of yesterday evening, however, Bass insisted that Ankara had still not provided the U.S. mission with any official communication explaining why its embassy employees had been detained.
Western diplomatic officials aren’t the only targets of Erdoğan’s wrath. On Wednesday, a Turkish court sentenced Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak in absentia to two years and one month in prison on the charge that she had supported and disseminated terrorist propaganda. Albayrak’s true offense was to interview members of the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party, PKK, in a piece chronicling the extent of Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds in 2015. Albayrak is safe in New York City, but hundreds of other journalists—both Turks and citizens of other Western nations—have not been so lucky. “Amnesty International and other rights groups say Turkey has more journalists jailed than any other country in the world,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Authorities have closed more than 150 media outlets under the state of emergency’s executive orders, according to Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.
Erdoğan’s fits of enraged political theater continued on Thursday. In another speech, the Turkish president accused the United States of providing “weapons for free to a terrorist organization,” specifically the Kurdish YPG in Syria. He said America had sent some 3,500 trucks and hundreds of heavy armaments to Kurdish rebels “to encircle us from the south.” The U.S. has been arming Kurdish rebel factions, including the YPG, but because they serve as the most capable anti-ISIS militia force on the ground in Syria.
As capable as the Kurdish militias are, they have not prevented American troops from being deployed to the country. Among those deployments was a detachment of Stryker combat vehicles. They were dispatched to the Turkish-Syria border in March not to fight ISIS but, according to an American coalition spokesman, to explicitly “deter any hostile action against the city and its civilians, to enhance local governance and to ensure there is no persistent Y.P.G. presence.” The only forces that needed to be deterred were Turkish units, which were engaged in kinetic anti-Kurd air and ground combat missions.
This antagonism is hardly the behavior expected of NATO allies, but Ankara is behaving less and less like a NATO capital. In his latest tirade on Thursday, Erdoğan announced his intention to suspend all weapons purchase from the United States. That news comes following the announcement this week that Turkey plans to purchase sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia. Turkey’s warming toward not just Russia but Iran, another beneficiary of Moscow, has led observers to fear that they are witnessing a marvel: the creation of an anti-Western alliance that includes a member of the Western alliance.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg insists that he is not concerned; Turkey has approached France and Italy about purchasing similar weapons systems and the S-400s will not be integrated into NATO’s collective air-defense network. It couldn’t have eased Stoltenberg’s fears when Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu published a graphic demonstrating precisely which American warplanes Russia’s S-400s are capable of destroying.
Nothing would so please the West’s enemies than to see the NATO alliance splinter, even by just one member. Even if Turkey is an ally in name only, it will remain so for the foreseeable future. But the fiction of America’s alliance with the autocrat in Ankara need not be typified by gestures of a false friendship. Don’t expect visas to be issued again anytime soon.