The United States has suspended the processing of the vast majority of new visas in Turkey after Turkish authorities arrested a US embassy employee last week, escalating a brewing diplomatic crisis between the two allies and, in effect, blocking thousands of Turks from travel to the US.
The embassy employee is the second to be arrested in the last year, in addition to at least a dozen US citizens held under yet unproven allegations of allegiance to Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled Islamic preacher living in Pennsylvania whose extradition Turkey has sought to little avail.
“Recent events have forced the United States government to reassess the commitment of the government of Turkey to the security of US mission facilities and personnel,” the US embassy in Ankara said in a statement late on Sunday. “In order to minimise the number of visitors to our embassy and consulates while this assessment proceeds, effective immediately we have suspended all non-immigrant visa services at all US diplomatic facilities in Turkey.”
In retaliation, Turkey’s embassy in Washington blocked new applications from US citizens, in a statement using almost identical language.
That means that other than those applying to immigrate to the US — usually because they have family there — no new visas will be issued to business people, tourists or students, among others. In the 2016 fiscal year, the US embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul issued 113,240 non-immigrant visas, compared to just 4,214 immigrant visas, according to state department data.
The arrest of the second embassy employee — a Turkish citizen — has incensed US diplomats, who said it confirmed suspicions that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers American detainees in Turkish prisons as a bargaining chip in its increasingly hostile negotiations with the US over the extradition of Mr Gulen and the trial of a Turkish-Iranian citizen with ties to Mr Erdogan’s inner circle.
“If the idea is that this would convince the Turkish elites to persuade Erdogan to stop harassing US citizens in Turkey, I think they will do the opposite and escalate,” said Soner Cagaptay, author of The New Sultan: Erdogan and the crisis of modern Turkey. Given Turkey’s deal with Russia in Syria, and rising anti-American sentiment among Mr Erdogan’s Islamist followers, “this suggests rough times ahead for bilateral ties”.
The embassy employee was immediately named in the pro-government press as having links to other followers of Mr Gulen, who Turkey has blamed both for a failed coup last year and a massive anti-corruption investigation in late 2013 that nearly toppled Mr Erdogan’s government.
The leaks prompted a rare censure from the US embassy, even as some in the Turkish press celebrated the scheduled departure of the US ambassador, John Bass, who various Turkish officials and columnists have accused — without evidence — of having ties with coup mongers and of supporting Kurdish terrorists.
The suspicion that US citizens were essentially being held hostage in Turkey was confirmed when Mr Erdogan told police officers in Ankara two weeks ago that he would consider swapping Andrew Brunson, a Presbyterian minister who has been imprisoned for nearly a year, for Mr Gulen, who is considered a spiritual leader by hundreds of thousands of Turks.
“They say give us this pastor,” he told the police officers, referring to Mr Brunson. “You have another pastor in your hand — give him to us.” He continued on to say, “Give him to us and we will put yours through the judiciary; we will give him to you.”
The problem is not isolated to US citizens. German diplomats are convinced that a Turkish-German journalist, Deniz Yucel, who was arrested in February after he emerged from hiding in the German consulate to answer questions from a prosecutor, is also being “hostage” for the extradition of Turkish military officials granted asylum in Germany.