Serious Consequences of Halt in Visas Between Ankara and DC
On Sunday, the U.S. embassy announced the suspension of Turkish visa applications for the U.S., stating that “recent events…have forced the United States government to reassess the commitment of the government of Turkey to the security of U.S. mission facilities and personnel.” In retaliation, the Turkish government suspended its own visa services to U.S. citizens early Monday morning. As the diplomatic crisis continues, The Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with former Ambassador to Turkey and Cipher Brief Expert James Jeffrey about how the United States can protect its embassy and consular staff in Turkey without permanently damaging relations with a key NATO ally.
The Cipher Brief: How significant is this imposition of visa restrictions?
James Jeffrey: This is very, very serious because suspending all visa issuance has a huge effect on routine business of every sort between the two countries, not just the two governments. It involves your military programs, military sales, business activities, education, culture, etc. It has a huge disruptive effect on everything, and the U.S government would not have taken that action in my view if they did not think that there was a punitive aspect to the arrest by Turkish authorities of this Turkish consular employee.
Leaving apart the whole American side, the problem is that the approach that Turkey under [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has taken, particularly in the post-coup investigation of networks connected to Fethullah Gulen, is to cast a wide net. This behavior is familiar to me from the 1980s and 1990s, pre-Erdogan Turkey. It’s basically that you’re guilty – or at least detainable – until proven innocent. It’s the reverse of innocent until proven guilty: you can be detained and held indefinitely until somebody can prove your innocence.
What they’re doing with the Gulen organization is exactly what Michael Flynn and Stanley McChrystal did with al Qaeda in Iraq. When you have a clandestine movement – and the Gulenists were a clandestine movement – you have to figure out who talks to who and who knows who. You’re going to have a huge number of people who get pulled into this thing, many of whom are by nature innocent.
So it could both be that the consular employee is totally innocent, but since his job was to talk to police officials and the police were heavily infiltrated by Gulen, there might be cause to interrogate and investigate even though the guy is innocent. But in Turkey, you’re not interrogated and sent home, you’re held in jail.
It’s also possible that the guy is actually guilty – who knows – and the last possibility is that the employee was targeted because the Turks want to send a message to the Americans on two cases. One is the Fethullah Gulen extradition case, and the other one is the Reza Zarrab case. Zarrab is an Iranian Turk who was involved in undercutting U.S. sanctions through a quasi-government bank, Halkbank, in Turkey and for some reason he stupidly showed up in the United States and was arrested. Erdogan has been particularly insistent on this because he has a lot of relationships with Halkbank and apparently this guy. Erdogan has actually publicly said that maybe he would trade people, such as an American pastor who is currently being held in Turkey, for Gulen and possibly Zerrab.
The problem is that America can’t respond – even if it wanted to – on either the Zarrab or the Gulen case because these are cases that require judicial review and judicial action. The executive branch doesn’t control the judiciary.
However, there is a lot more the U.S. could do about Gulen. Frankly, it could do a much more rapid and serious investigation. They have already come up with some very good evidence – that they recently passed to the Turks – on contacts between the ringleaders of the actual coup and Gulen. I know my bureaucracy. If somebody said, “Put a hundred prosecutors on this,” and simultaneously said, “Let’s crack down on the Gulenist activities in the U.S. that have already been investigated by the IRS and other agencies,” much more could be achieved and that’s the way to solve this thing.
However, at this point this is going to require Trump and Erdogan talking to calm things down.
TCB: What do you see as the Trump Administration’s desired goals here? Are they drawing a red line on the arrest of consular employees here?
Jeffrey: I wouldn’t go too far. My biggest concern is that Trump won’t care.
The decision to yank all visas was taken by the Department of State, but State is typically going to follow what an ambassador says on this kind of issue, particularly an important ambassador. But I think that Trump may not care all that much about this.
The reason to worry here is that if the Turks can start arresting members of our embassy staff at will, then our ability to function as an embassy in Turkey is severely undermined. But Trump might just say, “Tell me why I should care? Aren’t they part of the swamp?” That’s the problem we have with this guy, he has no appreciation of what every leader around the world takes as a given.
Trump might say “Hey, he’s a Turk, why should I care?” That is my fear. And it shouldn’t be too difficult to say that you can’t arrest our embassy staff. You can interrogate these people but you don’t have to detain them, they’re not going to flee, and my talking point to Erdogan if they do is, who cares? Is 55,393 people prosecuted for being Gulenists more important than prosecuting 55,392, but with the 55,593rd you get a breakdown in the relationship with America? Unless it’s really egregious, you don’t mess around with us. How do you like that?
TCB: When it comes to Turkey what does Trump want? What does he care about?
Jeffrey: He sees them as a possible ally in the fight against terror, and as he’s focusing more on containing Iran now, you can’t really do that without Turkey.
TCB: When you look at the underlying causes of this crisis, is this a bubbling over of tensions that already existed?
Jeffrey: I don’t see this as two incompatible countries. This isn’t the U.S. and Cuba in late 1959, for example. We have mainly compatible interests with Turkey as a status quo country. However, Erdogan has a genuine political interest in provoking the West for domestic political reasons, be it us or the Germans, and apart from some basic strategic questions – what do you do about the Syrian Kurds, what do you do about Syria, what do you do about Iran? – that we have between us, you have all these particular political disputes of a judicial nature, which are almost tit for tat.
On Gulen, we shouldn’t have had this goddamn guy in the country, the same way the Turks shouldn’t have let Zarrab come to United States. But these are very hard problems to fix, because the government doesn’t really intervene with what federal prosecutors do, that’s a rule that has almost always held.
It’s really a mess right now, and there’s always the danger that they might arrest a U.S. citizen who is a consular employee because those employees only have immunity on things that they do in their official business for the U.S. government. It does not cover, for example, if you hit somebody with a car. In practice, consular immunity is almost always treated as diplomatic immunity because it’s very hard to draw the line, but it is a possibility.
Ambassador James F. Jeffrey is the former U.S Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. Currently, Ambassador Jeffrey is the Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute where he focuses on U.S. regional, diplomatic, and military strategy, as well as Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. He previously served as assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor in the George W, Bush administration, with a special focus on Iran.