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US-Turkey Fallout: A Fight for Basic Freedoms

The diplomatic rift amounts to the White House getting a taste of its own medicine for ignoring human rights abuse by some of its closest allies.

The latest move by the United States and Turkey, which largely bans travel of their nationals between the two countries, is about more than just two NATO allies having a spat amid shifting alliances in a volatile region. It is a fight between two leaders, US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who are confronted with the limitations of their shared desire to redefine or restrict basic freedoms.

The row erupted on October 8 when the US Embassy in Ankara announced it was suspending the issuance of non-immigrant visas. This is part of Washington’s reassessment of the “commitment of the government of Turkey to the security of U.S. mission facilities and personnel.” The embassy stopped short of banning travel by all visa holders. Hours later, the Turkish Embassy in Washington went a step further by declaring that it had suspended all visa operations for American citizens, effectively banning all US passport holders from traveling to the country. “This measure will apply to sticker visas as well as e-Visas and border visas,” the embassy said. Turkey’s currency plunged in the wake of the announcement in early morning trading on Asian markets.

The spat is the latest escalation of tensions in a relationship that has been fraying for several years due to authoritarian policies adopted by Erdogan. The fallout is also the result of differences over the conflict in Syria, US cooperation with Syrian Kurds, the separate indictments in the US of a Turkish-Iranian businessman, and Turkish allegations of US interference in its domestic affairs.

The rift highlights the risks of President Trump’s empathy for authoritarian and autocratic leaders, which contrasts starkly with the emphasis on basic freedoms and the rule of law adopted by his predecessors. In September, Trump described relations with Turkey as “the closest we’ve ever been.”

The diplomatic fallout amounts to the White House getting a taste of its own medicine for ignoring human rights abuse by some of its closest allies. As a result, US nationals and government employees have become the victims of seemingly arbitrary crackdowns for political, rather than national security reasons that violate basic freedoms and make a mockery of the rule of law.

WHY HAVE THE US AND TURKEY FALLEN OUT?

The spat escalated after Turkey indicted — over the last year — two Turkish nationals working at US diplomatic missions in the country and detained at least a dozen other US citizens, including a Christian missionary worker. The charges relate to having ties to Fethullah Gulen, an aging Turkish preacher who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania for the past two decades. Erdogan blames Gulen, the leader of one of the world’s richest Islamic movements and most far-flung education systems, for having engineered a failed military coup in 2016. Some 250 people died in the ensuing events, in which dissident Turkish tank commanders fired at the parliament building in Ankara.

The indictment of the Turkish nationals and the arrest of Americans were part of a massive crackdown on government critics. This involved the firing up to 150,000 public servants, the arrest of tens of thousands, the curbing of press freedoms, and a constitutional referendum granting the president wide-ranging powers. Erdogan has repeatedly justified the crackdown as a legitimate response to the failed coup.

The targeting of Turkish nationals employed by the US government appeared to be a crude attempt to persuade the Trump administration to extradite Gulen, who has denied having any association with the attempted coup. The administrations of both Trump and former President Barack Obama have rejected Turkish extradition requests because Ankara has not provided sufficient evidence to substantiate its claim that the preacher was responsible for the coup.

Erdogan also wants the release of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman with ties to Turkey’s ruling elite. Zarrab was arrested in Miami in 2016 for helping Iran evade sanctions.

In September, Erdogan suggested that he would be willing to swap Andrew Brunson, a detained missionary who ran a small Protestant church in the coastal city of Izmir, for Gulen. “‘Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him (Gulen) to us. Then we will try (Brunson) and give him to you,” the Turkish president said.

The latest spat constitutes a serious deterioration of US-Turkey relations at a time that Turkish-backed rebels are battling Islamist militants in Syria’s Idlib province. The fighting aims to drive back al-Qaeda-linked forces and prevent the emergence of a Syrian-Kurdish entity on Turkey’s border following an independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. It also comes as Turkey has forged closer ties with Iran in an effort to confront Kurdish moves. Ankara has also stepped up its cooperation with Russia in Syria.

… AND EGYPT?

Turkey is not the only country to detain US nationals or green card holders. Ola al-Qaradawi, a 55-year-old research assistant, and her husband Hossam Khalaf have been held in solitary confinement since 2016 in Egypt. Their only crime appears to be that Ola is related to Yousef al-Qaradawi, a controversial religious scholar based in Qatar who is also a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. The US has no consular obligations, but Congressman Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the powerful House Armed Services Committee, has taken up their case as they both hold green cards.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power in a military coup in 2013, has gone much further than Erdogan in brutally cracking down on opponents and freedoms. In a rare break with apparent US neglect of human rights abuse among its allies, President Trump has cut military aid to Egypt, citing legal restrictions imposed on nongovernmental organizations. The real reason was more likely to be Egypt’s relations with North Korea. The Trump administration has suggested that it would review its aid decision if Egypt breaks off diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. Acting on US intelligence, Egyptian authorities seized in August a boatload of $23 million-worth of rocket-propelled grenades shipped from North Korea and destined for Egypt. Egypt has denied that it was the intended end-user.

To be clear, the repressive policies of Erdogan and Sisi, as well as Trump’s attitude toward authoritarianism and autocracy and his efforts to redefine basic freedoms in the US, enjoy the support of segments of their populations. As a result, the plight of US nationals and government employees in Turkey is unlikely to persuade Trump to return to the more assertive advocacy of basic rights and the rule of law of his predecessors. It does, however, demonstrate that tacit endorsement of authoritarian or autocratic rule is not without risk for US citizens as well as foreign nationals employed by the US government.

Moreover, it suggests that a lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law constitutes a slippery slope, which could ultimately put US national security interests at risk on a far-larger scale. That has been evident since the 2011 Arab Uprisings, which heralded an era of often volatile and violent transition in the Middle East and North Africa. It is a convoluted and bloody process of change that poses multiple, often unpredictable challenges, many of which are exacerbated rather than alleviated by autocratic and authoritarian rule.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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