This visa dispute between Turkey and the United States is the gravest crisis between them since 1975
At its root, this dispute is yet another Turkish citizen and his family being hounded for alleged links to Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey accuses of establishing a parallel stage structure, turning against the government and ultimately orchestrating a failed coup in July 2016.
But this time the story is a little different, threatening to leave thousands of travellers stranded and prising two NATO allies even further apart.
Who is he?
The row centres around Metin Topuz, who has worked as the US Consulate’s point man with Turkish police and prosecutors for many years. These were the same years when Turkey’s law enforcement agencies and judiciary were staffed by vast numbers of Gülenists.
Turkish citizens suspected of ties to the Pennsylvania-based cleric’s network have, of course, long been removed from their jobs in their tens of thousands. Many are behind bars, awaiting trial or serving long prison sentences.
Now the Turkish government’s inquisition has reached Mr Topuz. He was detained last Wednesday on suspicion of links to 121 suspected Gülenists including Zekeriya Öz, a former prosecutor who fled to Germany in 2015.
After Turkey issues arrest warrant for another US consulate employee in Istanbul, police detain his wife, son, and (just now) daughter. https://t.co/Z1LdOmDv9g
— Piotr Zalewski (@p_zalewski) October 10, 2017
On Monday, Mr Topuz’s wife and son were detained too. There’s also a warrant out for another US Consulate employee in Istanbul whose family has already been hauled in for questioning.
Mr Topuz’s precise job description at the consulate wasn’t immediately clear. According to media reports of his first statement to police, his consulate career stretches back 35 years. He moved to his current role, the Istanbul bureau of an “American federal narcotic police agency”, in 1993 – this could be the Drug Enforcement Administration.
John Bass, the outgoing US ambassador to Turkey, described his job as “strengthening law enforcement cooperation between the United States and Turkey”, adding: “speaking to and travelling with Turkish police was a part of his regular duties.”
Worst in 42 years
What separates Mr Topuz’s case from the tens of thousands of other Turkish citizens arrested on suspicion of Gülenist links is that his arrest triggered the gravest crisis between Turkey and the United States since the 1975 arms embargo.
On Sunday, Mr Bass took the dramatic decision to suspend all non-immigrant visa services in Turkey. It meant that any Turkish businessman, student or tourist wanting to come to the States was suddenly stuck. Mr Bass said his concern was the security of US diplomatic buildings and personnel – a clear hint that he believed more arrests could follow.
Turkey responded in kind – literally. A statement copying the US announcement nearly word for word was distributed by the Turkish Embassy in Washington that same day.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, has taken the route of implying Mr Bass has gone rogue.
“An ambassador in Ankara taking decisions and saying he is doing so in the name of his government is cause for thought,” he said during a visit to Serbia on Tuesday.
“If my ambassador did this, I wouldn’t keep him there even for a minute.”
Playing fast and loose?
The visa suspension was preceded by Mr Bass’s decision to block Sabah journalists from his farewell press conference because the newspaper had printed the allegations against Mr Topuz – alongside a string of personal details – in lurid detail, apparently before Mr Topuz himself was presented them.
It was a short-sighted move that gifted pro-government journalists the opportunity to – hypocritically – howl they were the victim of press muzzling. Sabah duly did. Mr Topuz is far from being the first Turkish citizen to be disparaged by Turkey’s vicious pro-government press; disinviting any journalist, however repugnant, does not chime with the country that brought us the First Amendment.
But Mr Bass is neither a rebel nor a novice. He is an experienced diplomat who has been in Ankara since 2014 and wouldn’t have suspended visa services without the knowledge of the US State Department.
This row has exposed how desperately confused US policy towards Turkey has become. It is a relationship that is being tugged in multiple directions by multiple factors, from the AK Party government’s authoritarianism and the unending saga of Fetullah Gülen’s possible extradition to the tactics for defeating ISIS and the shape of a future Syria.This thread of tweets from analyst Aaron Stein makes it plain: the US-Turkey alliance “is in trouble. No trust. The conditions to fix it require dialogue and consensus on a number of regional issues.”
The revealing part of this is what the debate says about US foreign policy and, nested within that, how Ankara has completely misread DC
— Aaron Stein (@aaronstein1) October 10, 2017
It has left Turkish Airlines, which runs at least nine daily flights to the United States, advising US travellers to make alternative arrangements.
It has left Turkish-American relations at a low not seen since 1975, when the United States imposed an arms embargo in a never-ending dispute with Bülent Ecevit’s government over Cyprus and opium.
Few would argue that Turkey is turning away from the West – but which way is it facing now?