October 10, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: Turkey and the U.S. at Serious Odds
Even as it moves troops into northern Syria as part of the temporary partition of Idlib province, Turkey is fighting diplomatic battles with the U.S. over the latest repercussions from a failed 2016 coup. Last week, Turkish officials arrested Metin Topuz, a Turkish citizen and employee at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul. He is accused of espionage and—even worse to Ankara—of links to Fethullah Gulen, a cleric and former Turkish citizen, now a U.S. resident living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, whom Turkey accuses of being behind the coup.
Arresting Topuz was just the latest incident in the badly fraying relations between the U.S. and Turkey. The U.S. Embassy called the arrest both deeply disturbing and ‘without merit.’ In response, the Embassy announced it would suspend most non-immigrant visa services (a step countries don’t take lightly), saying it wanted to limit the number of consular visits while it reassessed Ankara’s commitment to ensuring the safety of U.S. personnel (including Turkish employees such as Topuz). Ankara denounced the suspension and then did the exact same thing, essentially disrupting almost all visa travel between the two erstwhile NATO partners and allies. Turkey also doubled down on its aggressive moves, issuing an ‘invitation’ for a second U.S. consulate employee to meet with state prosecutors, while his wife and child were being held.
Despite an apparently superficial friendship between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, relations between the two countries are as bad as they’ve ever been. In May, Turkish security officials were videoed beating protestors opposed to Erdogan on a street in downtown Washington D.C.; fifteen of the officials were charged with felonies, a move strongly denounced by Erdogan. The U.S. is also pursuing a legal case against a former Turkish minister over charges of evading sanctions related to Iran. Meanwhile, relations within the NATO alliance are also strained. In September, Erdogan revealed that Turkey had begun paying Russia for its S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. NATO members usually ensure their weapons systems are interoperable; the S-400 is clearly not and its purchase is a remarkable affront to the alliance, both in terms of the practicalities and NATO’s mission statement.
The Gulen issue will not go away, as Erdogan is convinced the failed coup was, in part, supported by the West. The U.S. has stated it has seen no evidence Gulen was involved in the coup and refuses to extradite him to Turkey. Washington’s partnership with Syrian Kurds in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting the so-called Islamic state, is also adding to the tensions. Anything having to do with the Kurds threatens to cross the brightest of Erdogan’s many and increasing red lines. Ankara’s military involvement in Syria is focused mostly on ensuring the Kurds don’t establish a foothold along Turkey’s southern border. Turkey also fought a decades-long insurgency with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization—and objects to any U.S. partnership with Kurdish parties. As in Iraq, the U.S. has found the Syrian Kurds to be its most effective partners in the coalition battling the Islamic State, but that partnership is increasingly drawing Turkey’s fury.
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