The Cable

Turkey Digs in Heels Over Diplomatic Fight With U.S.

Both sides have their diplomatic daggers drawn.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deliver joint statements at the White House on May 16, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deliver joint statements at the White House on May 16, 2017.

Turkey arrested a locally hired employee of the U.S. consulate in Istanbul last week, sparking a fierce diplomatic spat between the two countries that came to a head over the weekend when each country suspended consular services in the other.

But the spat isn’t over, and now Turkey is digging in its heels.

On Monday, Turkish authorities summoned a second U.S. consulate worker to testify as a suspect in a terror case, Turkish state media reported.

“An employee at the U.S. Consulate Istanbul … who does not have diplomatic immunity, has been summoned to our chief public prosecutor’s office [in Istanbul] for his testimony,” Istanbul’s Chief Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement on Monday. The statement also said the employee’s wife and child were detained on terror charges, as Turkish state news Anadolu Agency reported.

It’s the latest example of a growing rift between Washington and Ankara, which are (at least on paper) close allies. Critics fear the local hires at the embassy, who don’t have U.S. citizenship nor diplomatic immunity, could become pawns in Turkey’s larger geopolitical game and bilateral showdown with Western countries bristling at its backslide toward authoritarian rule.

On Oct. 4, Turkish authorities arrested Metin Topuz, a local employee at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, amid accusations of espionage and terrorism over alleged ties to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames Gulen, once a political ally, for a botched coup attempt in July 2016. The U.S. embassy in Ankara issued a statement saying the U.S. government was “deeply disturbed” by the arrest and the charges rested on “baseless, anonymous allegations.”

The State Department slapped back, effectively cutting off Turks from traveling to the United States by suspending indefinitely nonimmigrant visa services. Turkey took the same action in response.

The whole row appears to have personally hurt Erdogan, as he said in a news conference on Monday. “This decision is very, very saddening. For the [U.S.] embassy to take a decision like this, to put into practice, is saddening,” Erdogan said, speaking from Kiev, Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said it summoned the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Turkey, Philip Kosnett, to push him to lift the visa suspensions.

While they exchange a war of words and consular spats, the United States and Turkey remain key partners in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State terrorist group. They’re also NATO allies — meaning they’re treaty obligated to defend one another in the event of an outside attack.

But the cooperation may start and end there. Since the failed 2016 coup, Erdogan has consolidated his own power and chipped away at the country’s democratic institutions. He has thrown tens of thousands of military personnel, civil servants, dissidents, and journalists into jail. That has sparked new tensions with Washington and other European allies, who are eyeing Erdogan’s power grab and bend toward authoritarianism warily.

Top European leaders have said in recent months Erdogan effectively killed Turkey’s chances of ever joining the European Union, further pushing Ankara away from its historic western allies.

Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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