Turkey asks US to 'review' visa services suspension as it summons second consulate worker

Washington took the decision to suspend visa services on Sunday after a Turkish staffer was arrested last week at the US consulate in Istanbul for alleged links to opposition cleric Fethullah Gulen. Hours later, Ankara responded by suspending non-immigrant visas to American citizens and on Monday announced that a second US consulate worker had been summoned for questioning

A woman waits in front of the visa application office entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
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Turkey said on Monday it hoped the United States would "review" its decision to suspend most visa services for Turkish citizens, as it summoned a second employee of the US consulate in Istanbul to testify over alleged links to last year's failed coup.

Washington took the decision to suspend visa services on Sunday after a Turkish staffer was arrested last week at the US consulate for alleged links to the Pennsylvania-based opposition cleric Fethullah Gulen — who Ankara says was behind the coup attempt.

Hours later, Turkey responded by suspending non-immigrant visas to US citizens.

On Monday, Turkish authorities announced that a second US consulate worker had been "invited" to the office of Istanbul's chief prosecutor to testify.

The state-run Anadolu news agency said the employee was wanted for questioning after his wife and daughter were detained in the Black Sea city of Amasya over alleged links to Mr Gulen's network. His wife and daughter were later brought to Istanbul for legal procedures, the agency added, but did not say whether the consulate worker had complied with the summons.


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Turkey's foreign ministry meanwhile summoned the US embassy's second-in-charge on Monday to ask that Washington review its decision to suspend visa services. The ministry said the move had caused "unnecessary escalation" and "victimised" both Turkish and US citizens.

"It is Turkey's right to try a Turkish citizen for acts carried out in Turkey," he said. "Everyone should follow [legal procedures] with respect," said justice minister Abdulhamit Gul.

Metin Topuz, the US consulate worker who was arrested last week, is accused of espionage and "attempting to overthrow the Turkish government and constitution". According to Anadolu, he allegedly communicated with former police chiefs in a 2013 corruption investigation and others involved in the attempted coup using an encrypted mobile messaging application.

The US embassy in Turkey has said it is "deeply disturbed" by the arrest.

Late on Sunday evening, the US embassy in Ankara announced that "recent events" had forced Washington to reassess Turkey's "commitment" to the security of US mission facilities and personnel.

It said in a statement that "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”.

Non-immigrant visas are issued to all those travelling to the US for tourism, education, medical treatment, business and media.

Hours after the decision, Turkey retaliated through its embassy in Washington issuing a word-for-word copy statement that suspended non-immigrant visas to US citizens.

Henri Barkey, a professor in the international relations department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, told The National that the US move is "a blunt warning to [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan".

“It’s serious, but it’s an assessment which makes it temporary,” he said, adding the assessment will tell “the Turkish government: you better do something [about the people it detained]”.

Last week's arrest of Mr Topuz was not the first time Turkey had detained a US consulate employee. In May, a senior Turkish consulate worker was arrested in the southern province of Adana.

Aaron Stein, of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, said Turkey has in recent months imprisoned Americans and US embassy and consulate staff under “dubious charges”.

This behaviour is in line with Mr Erdogan’s idea “to trade these people for Mr Gulen”, he said on Sunday. “This is a policy of hostage-taking, and the Turkish authorities finally pushed the US too far and, today, Washington retaliated”.


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But it may be less about Mr Gulen and more about two Turkish men arrested by the US on allegations of violating American sanctions against Iran, said Mr Barkey.

“Erdogan is creating a hostage crisis … he is being explicit, if they [US] want the people we are holding, they have to give us the people they are holding.”

Mr Barkey said the Turkish president would like to swap businessman Reza Zarrab — arrested in the US last year — and banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla — arrested in the US earlier this year — with the detained American consulate employees.

“That’s who Mr Erdogan wants and [he wants them] before Mr Zarrab starts talking about his involvement in violating US sanctions on Iran,” he added.

Both Mr Stein and Mr Barkey agreed that this a new low for US-Turkey relations and could have repercussions on anti-ISIL and defence co-operation between the two Nato members.

“It is fair to say that the trust level is near zero and this makes it worse,” said Mr Stein.

Tensions have already been simmering between US and Turkey even before last year's failed coup.

Washington’s support for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) forces in Syria has infuriated Ankara, while the US has been critical of Turkey’s approach towards ISIL, including the Anadolu leak of US military locations in northern Syria last June.

Immediate backlash from the escalation in tensions may hurt mostly Turkish students and tourists coming to the US, Mr Barkey noted. But he added that long-term damage — including the prospect of the US seeking an alternative to the Incirlik airbase in Turkey — will materialise if this crisis is not resolved.

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