Recent U.S. confrontations with implacable enemies like Iran and North Korea have somewhat overshadowed the escalating and deeply concerning deterioration of American relations with a longtime ally, Turkey.
Earlier this month, Turkish authorities arrested a U.S. consular staff member, leading to a sharp uptick in long-simmering tensions. The staff member is accused by Turkey of terrorism and espionage, and is only the latest of several American citizens, including a physicist and a pastor, who have been detained since a failed military coup in the country last year.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames a Turkish exile in the U.S., Fethullah Gülen, for orchestrating the attempted coup, and has arrested many of its own citizens for having ties to Mr. Gülen, as well as on suspicion of having been involved in the insurrection, which Turkey considers complicity in “terrorism.”
The Turkish leader has repeatedly pushed Washington to extradite Mr. Gülen so he can be tried over his alleged central role in the failed coup. But the U.S. has refused to hand him over, saying there is not enough evidence against him.
The Turkish president and the exile, as it happens, were once allies working to create a new political movement in Turkey.
But in 2013, a corruption scandal — centered around a scheme to help Iran bypass U.S. sanctions — led to the arrests of several people close to Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time.
He was furious when wiretaps implicated him and his son, and charged that the recordings had been doctored by backers of Gülen. Ever since, Erdoğan has doggedly pursued Gülen and his followers — and anyone he suspects may be part of or aiding that group. Approximately 130,000 people suspected of being dissenters have been fired in the private and public sectors, 40,000 teachers have been removed from their jobs, and 120 journalists have been jailed, as have more than a dozen opposition lawmakers.
Intensifying Turkey’s ill will toward the U.S. further is the fact that, in its effort to eradicate the Islamic State movement, the U.S. has supported and armed a Kurdish faction. Turkey fears the establishment of a Kurdish state in part of Syria near its border. While the U.S. has declared its opposition to such a state, Erdoğan charges that America secretly wishes for one.
Turkish air raids, moreover, have killed American-allied Kurdish fighters in both Syria and Iraq, leading to strong protests from the U.S.
The increasing tensions can’t be laid at the door of President Trump. Last month, speaking to the media, he introduced the Turkish president, who was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, as “a friend of mine… running a very difficult part of the world… involved very, very strongly and, frankly… getting very high marks.”
“We have a great friendship,” he added, “and I think we’re as close as we’ve ever been.”
Complicating things even more is the upcoming trial of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman in Erdoğan’s inner circle, who was arrested in Miami last year in connection with the 2013 scheme to help Iran avoid U.S. sanctions.
Zarrab is being tried in a New York court for his role “in hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions on behalf of the government of Iran and Iranian entities,” according to a Justice Department statement. An irate President Erdoğan has cast the case as a political move against him and his party, and demanded that American prosecutors free Mr. Zarrab.
Last week, the American embassy in Ankara announced it was suspending visa services across Turkey to “reassess” Turkey’s commitment to the security of its diplomatic facilities and staff members. Within hours, Turkey countered by saying it would no longer accept visa applications from American citizens. (About 450,000 Americans visited Turkey last year.)
Turkey, a NATO ally that borders both Syria and Iran, is situated in an important and tense region. It has been a key military partner of the U.S., supporting a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991, for instance, as well as aiding the global fight against terrorism following the September 11, 2001 attacks. It also hosts multiple American military installations and even nuclear weapons.
Clearly, the rapid deterioration of U.S. relations with Turkey is cause for alarm, and for our tefillos.