ISTANBUL — Sinan Sökmen’s business depends on American tourism, so when the United States and Turkey suspended visitor visas this week, he was shocked.
“We were not expecting such harsh political moves from both sides, but I didn’t think this would last more than a couple of days because it was affecting everyday people’s lives,” said Sökmen, owner of Istanbul Tour Studio, which works with English-speaking visitors. “This is between the politicians, and if American travelers come to Turkey after this crisis, there will be no hostilities toward them from the Turkish people.”
While the initial panic from Sunday’s diplomatic crisis began to subside Wednesday, the latest confrontation between Turkey and the United States signals the deteriorating relationship between two critical military and economic allies that is unlikely to go away soon.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party renewed calls Wednesday for the U.S. to reverse its decision to stop processing non-immigrant visas in Turkey. The U.S. government took that step following the arrest of Metin Topuz, a Turkish employee of its consulate here on charges of espionage and links to Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Topuz was the second Turkish employee of a U.S. diplomatic mission to be arrested.
The Turkish government blames Gulen for orchestrating last year’s coup attempt against Erdogan and has demanded that the U.S. extradite him, something Washington has so far refused to do.
Turkey retaliated by suspending non-immigrant visas to U.S. citizens, and arresting the wife and daughter of a third Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulate.
“This is a lose-lose situation … from trade to tourism, to growth and jobs for both countries,” said Bahadir Kaleagasi, CEO of the Turkish Industry and Business Association. “So we advise both capitals to act rationally, with common sense and with open and sincere diplomacy.”
Kaleagasi said the recent escalation of tensions caused the cancellation of business meetings and jeopardized a new project being planned by his organization to increase ties between Silicon Valley and Turkey’s technology industry.
In addition to economic ties with the U.S. Turkey is a valued NATO partner involved in the U.S.-led fight to destroy the Islamic State.
Confusion after the initial suspension of visas prompted Americans and Turks to believe they would be banned from travel. On Tuesday, officials clarified that Turkish citizens can apply for visas at U.S. consulates outside Turkey, and Americans traveling from countries outside the U.S. can obtain visas on arrival or from Turkish embassies outside the United States.
Pentagon spokesman Robert Manning said the diplomatic dispute had not impacted military personnel or operations between the two countries, including U.S. use of a key air base in Turkey.
Erdogan sought to shift blame away from the U.S. government onto U.S. Ambassador John Bass. “There is something cooking in the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul,” Erdogan said during a state visit to Serbia. “How did these agents infiltrate the U.S. Consulate?”
Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, called the dispute a “threshold moment” for U.S.-Turkish relations that has “eroded trust to such a low level.”
The election of Donald Trump, whose real estate empire extends into Turkey, was initially seen by Ankara as an opportunity to reset relations with the United States, which had soured under President Barack Obama.
In April, following a controversial referendum that granted Erdogan sweeping powers, President Trump called the Turkish leader to congratulate him on his victory, pleasing Turkish officials, in sharp contrast to European officials who lamented Trump’s victory.
But the warming of relations proved short-lived. Trump’s administration supports Kurdish rebels in Syria who are fighting the Islamic State, and that angers Erdogan for fear the Kurds will carve out an independent state from land in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Relations further deteriorated in September when federal prosecutors in New York indicted Turkey’s former economic minister and three other Turks on charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
For Washington, the tipping point was Turkey’s arrest of U.S. consular employees and the use of other American detainees as bargaining chips to force the extradition of exiled cleric Gulen, including Serkan Golge, a former NASA scientist and U.S. citizen from Houston.
“The tension is increasing, and I feel like they are going to keep him as a hostage,” said his wife, Kubra. The father of two was arrested in July 2016 while visiting family in Turkey and accused of links to Gulen and his followers in Turkey who oppose Erdogan’s rule. Golge has been denied bail, and his wife, also a U.S., citizen, said she is banned from leaving the country.
Last month, Erdogan suggested that Andrew Brunson, an American pastor jailed in Turkey on terrorism charges, would be released only if the U.S. extradites Gulen. “They say, ‘Give us this certain pastor.’ You have another pastor in your hands. Give him to us,” Erdogan said.
Carnegie Europe’s Ulgen said that given the tensions, “it would be naïve to expect any short-term improvements, but over the medium-term, more probable” if Trump and Erdogan take steps toward reconciliation.
Others are less optimistic. “I think it’s Midnight Express, said Clyde Forsberg, an American professor arrested in 2016 following the failed coup and released after four days. His reference was to the 1978 movie about an American imprisoned and mistreated by Turkish authorities for drug smuggling.
“The jailed Americans are not going to be able to leave,” Forsberg said. “Erdogan is way too confident in his position, and he really is out for blood.”