It's been more than two weeks since the United States suspended the issuing of all non-immigrant visas in Turkey, halting the travel to the U.S. of thousands of Turkish citizens. Tit-for-tat, Turkey announced it would stop issuing e-visas and airport visas to U.S. citizens arriving directly from U.S. destinations.
American sanctions on Turkey come as Turkish citizens working at the U.S. consular offices in Ankara have been targeted by the Turkish government’s expanding purge: two consular workers have so far been detained.
U.S. visa sanctions sent shock waves through Turkey, especially for those accustomed to frequent travel to the U.S. over the last decade. Turkish Airlines’ extensive U.S. flight schedule is testament to the Turkish demand for interconnectivity with the U.S. Thousands have had their plans put on hold or cancelled altogether.
Thus far, the damage has been limited. Since U.S. visas often have a ten-year expiration date, many still have no problem getting through; and, for those desperate to get to a U.S. destination without a current visa, they can also apply through a third country - though that’s certainly a costly and time-consuming process.
Unlike in Turkey, in the U.S., the visa suspensions have barely made the headlines, and Turkey’s reciprocal act - while in line with diplomatic protocol - shortsightedly hurts its own interests far more. Turkish Airlines has reported a 45 percent drop in reservations from Turkey to the U.S.
But even if the visa issue hasn’t made much impact newswise for many Americans, Turkey’s image has already hit rock bottom, thanks to other events that have indeed made a media impact, not least Erdogan’s intemperate language towards the U.S., and the whole sorry episode of his presidential guards who beat up protestors in D.C.
The complimentary image of Turkey I used to hear described in America has been replaced by one dominant take: Turkey as an authoritarian state. And, as the political situation in the country has worsened, the many students, colleagues and friends who once streamed to Turkey, slowly stopped going.
Now, those friends and colleagues tell me before I go there to visit: "Be careful."
Back in 2015-2016, "be careful" referred to one’s personal safety.
During those years, Turkey was struck by ISIS and PKK terror, one bomb coming a bit too close for comfort, hundreds of yards from a student group I was leading last in early 2016. Turkey has been able to bring back a sense of security to its streets.
However, following the 2016 attempted coup and the ensuing State of Emergency, which has led to the arrest of tens of thousands, "be careful" has become a wider warning: "Beware of protests", and "beware of protesting". Americans saw firsthand how protesters in Washington D.C. were attacked by Erdogan’s guards.
It would be equally relevant to add further warnings to visitors: "Beware of journalism", after Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak was sentenced to two years in jail in absentia for an article she wrote that the government condemned as "terrorist propaganda".
And they also could add "beware of human rights activism", in relation to the members of Amnesty International, who were released last night on bail after spending almost 100 days in jail (Turkey’s Amnesty chairperson, Taner Kilic, is still in custody).
And "beware of working with NGOs of any kind", after the recent arrest of Osman Kavala, who has played a key role in promoting civil society and international art projects.
And "beware of just being an American who can be used as a hostage", after U.S. media coverage of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who’s been held for over a year on dubious espionage charges, went up a gear since fears were raised that Brunson is being used as a bargaining chip by Turkey. That was after Erdogan hinted that he could be exchanged for Fetullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric wanted in Turkey for allegedly masterminding the coup.
The sad reality is if Turkey had minded the diplomatic niceties and worked to stay off the radar of the U.S. and had avoided unnecessary conflict, most of the overflowing and documented human rights violations in Turkey would have remained tucked away in reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
How many Americans realize (or care) that the co-chairs of the third largest political party, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag of the mostly Kurdish HDP, are behind bars, together with a long list of other MPs from the same party, effectively silencing the opposition?
As news of Turkey’s human rights violations become more mainstream, there is a growing bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress that Turkey has crossed all democratic and rule of law red lines.
Despite concerted attempts by Turkey to sideline Congress and State Department officials, Erdogan’s attempts to carry out a direct line of communication with U.S. president Donald Trump, for now, at least, seems to have failed as a strategy.
Just yesterday, U.S. senators sent a bipartisan letter to President Trump expressing their grave concern over the "continuing erosion of human rights and decline of democratic values in Turkey."
As Turkey repivots closer to Russia, and as more voices arise in the U.S. calling to rethink the historic strategic relations between the two countries, Turkey is on track to fatally tarnish its image in the United States, risking not only a key ally but also the chance of Turkey once again becoming a magnet for American investment and support. America is also paying a price, absorbing varied geopolitical losses as Turkey retreats.
For now, New York and Istanbul have never seemed so far apart.
Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv
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