By Carlotta GALL | Oct. 9, 2017
First, the United States and Turkey temporarily stopped issuing visas
to each other’s citizens. Then the Turkish lira plunged on international markets, and
most travel between the two countries was curtailed.
By midday Monday, fears rose that a minor diplomatic dispute threatened to
flare up into a full diplomatic standoff.
But by evening, both sides seemed to be taking steps to ease tensions.
“This decision is very sad before anything else,” President Recep Tayyip
Erdogan of Turkey told journalists at a news briefing during a visit to Kiev, Ukraine,
sounding a rare conciliatory note. “It is regrettable that the U.S. ambassador in
Ankara took such a decision.”
In a statement a few hours later, the American ambassador, John R. Bass, said:
“This was not a decision we took lightly. It’s a decision we took with great sadness.”
In Turkey, the Foreign Ministry called for an end to the visa suspension because
it was causing “unnecessary victimization,” the Turkish state news agency, Anadolu,
The confrontation is taking place against a backdrop of deteriorating relations
between Turkey and the United States, NATO allies who are at odds over a number
of issues: American support for Kurdish fighters in Syria; calls by Turkey for the extradition of a cleric in the United States who it says was behind a failed coup last
year; and Turkey’s tilt toward Russia in the war in Syria.
The visa suspension came on Sunday evening, after a Turkish employee of the
American Consulate in Istanbul was arrested amid reports that another consulate
employee was being sought by Turkish authorities.
The Turks accused the employee, Metin Topuz, of having links to the wanted
cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who is living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
The United States Embassy said Sunday that it would suspend the processing of
all nonimmigrant visas while it reassessed Turkey’s commitment to the security of its
staff. Students, business travelers, tourists and diplomats all travel on such visas.
Within hours, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced similar measures in the
United States, adding that the suspension included electronic visas and visas bought
at the border — the way most tourists and other short-term visitors enter the
The United States ambassador, in his statement, said the embassy had not been
able to learn of the reasons for Mr. Topuz’s arrest or of the evidence held against
“The arrest has raised questions about whether the goal of some officials is to
disrupt the longstanding cooperation between Turkey and the United States,” the
ambassador’s statement said.
The measures, which threaten to create chaos for Americans flying into Turkey,
do not appear to have been enforced at the border so far.
Investors were spooked nevertheless. The lira dropped more than 4 percent
against the dollar on Asian markets, news agencies reported.
“It is a pretty serious historic crisis,” said Soner Cagaptay, a research fellow at
the Washington Institute and the author of a book on Mr. Erdogan, “The New
Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.”
“Washington gave Erdogan the benefit of the doubt for the last 15 years of his
many diplomatic transgressions, but this is different,” Mr. Cagaptay said.
The United States was so upset about the arrests of its local staff members
because they are vital to providing the technical and contextual support in
diplomatic missions, he said.
Mr. Topuz was formally arrested on charges of espionage, trying to overthrow
the government and acting against the Constitution. His address was printed in a
pro-government newspaper, Sabah.
Another employee, at the consulate in Adana, Turkey, was arrested in March
over similar accusations, but his case has not yet come to trial. Both men appear to
have been charged in part because of ties developed with former security officials in
the course of their work — raising questions about the safety of all local employees of
American diplomatic missions in Turkey.
Turkey’s decision to welcome the leaders of Iran and Venezuela in recent weeks
has also upset the United States, Mr. Cagaptay said, as has Mr. Erdogan’s
abandonment of democratic standards as he imposed a state of emergency after last
year’s failed coup and then sought greater powers for the presidency in a referendum
in the spring.
Turkey has detained dozens of foreign citizens on terrorism charges, including
several Americans. It has become increasingly clear that they are seen as potential
bargaining chips in Turkey’s efforts to force the extradition of Mr. Gulen.
Mr. Erdogan has also expressed anger over the charges brought against 15 of his
bodyguards over their use of violence against protesters in Washington in May, and
over court cases against a former Turkish cabinet minister and three others in a case
of conspiracy to violate sanctions against Iran.
President Trump has praised Mr. Erdogan as a stalwart ally in the fight against
terrorism. He said last month after a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations
General Assembly that ties between the two countries were “as close as we’ve ever
On Monday, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said in an interview on live
television that there no decision had been made to arrest any other United States
employees, dismissing local news reports that prosecutors were preparing to detain
another consulate worker.
The Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office was quoted on Monday as saying that a
worker at the consulate in Istanbul, who was identified only by the initials N.M.C.,
had been invited to the prosecutor’s office for an interview. The man’s wife and child
were taken into custody in the town of Amasya.
Two more people were detained in connection with the case of Mr. Topuz, the
news channel NTV reported.
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