Embassies in Ankara Worry Their Turkish Employees Could Be Erdogan's Next Target

Ankara and Washington are clashing after Turkey arrested local employees of U.S. missions, which diplomats say reflects Erdogan’s displeasure with the Americans’ refusal to extradite Erdogan-rival Fethullah Gulen

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a visit to  Novi Pazar, Serbia, October 11, 2017.
Marko Djurica / Reuters

ANKARA – A diplomatic row between Turkey and the United States has made some Western embassies in Ankara fear they could be next in the fray and thus are leery about sending local staff on sensitive tasks, diplomats there say.

The two countries suspended visa services for each other’s citizens following the arrest last month of Metin Topuz, a Turkish employee at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul. American diplomats in Ankara say Turkish authorities have declined to give details on any charges against Topuz.

“All they have is allegations from the pro-government press; they won’t restore normality until they get clarity,” said a senior diplomat from a large European country, referring to the Americans. He said the Americans would stick to their stance, “even though the measures they took are very harsh.”

At some Western diplomatic missions, many Turkish staff members who liaise with Turkish institutions such as the police and judiciary are refusing to deal with sensitive files after worrying about what could come next, say diplomats in the capital. As a diplomat from a southern European country put it, “this has a strong, practical impact on bilateral relations between states.”

The backdrop of the crisis is the long-standing charge that forces led by Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who lives in Pennsylvania, have been working to subvert the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the AKP. Erdogan, for example, says Gulen orchestrated the failed coup of July 2016.

According to the Turkish media, Topuz is accused of working with Gulenist police officers and prosecutors who improperly pushed corruption charges in 2013 against AKP officials.

On Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that “Turkey does not need Washington’s permission to prosecute Turkish citizens in Turkey,” while Erdogan has called the measures taken by U.S. authorities “saddening” and blamed the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, for the escalation.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim giving a speech in Ankara, October 10, 2017.
Adem Altan / AFP

Taking to Twitter

Bass has argued that “speaking to and traveling with Turkish police is part of the regular duties of an employee who works in an office devoted to strengthening law enforcement cooperation.” He was addressing the diplomatic stand-off in a video posted Monday night on the Twitter account of the U.S. Embassy in Turkey.

As a diplomat from an English-speaking country told Haaretz after a meeting Tuesday between all European ambassadors to Turkey, “All embassies have employees who liaise with Turkish police, no matter who they are. It’s not our fault if they’re riddled with Gulenists.”

Now local staffers in other Western embassies, many of whom say they believe that Topuz is innocent, fear that routine interactions with members of the Turkish police and judiciary could lead Ankara to “target other embassies with specious judicial actions against local employees in the future,” the diplomat said.

Unlike diplomats, local staff are not protected by diplomatic immunity and are fully liable to prosecution under Turkey’s judicial system. Precautionary measures – like not sending Turkish employees alone to meetings – have been taken by some Western embassies since the arrest of a U.S. diplomat at the consulate in Adana in March. These measures will now be strengthened.

In Bass’ statement posted on Twitter, he said: “This arrest is raising questions over whether the goal of some officials is to disrupt the long-standing cooperation between Turkey and the United States.”

As a diplomat from a southern European embassy put it, speaking to Haaretz, “Nothing happens in this country if there is no political will behind it. If this was the doing of an independent prosecutor, and Turkish authorities wanted to stop the escalation, he would have been reined in already.”

According to the diplomat from an English-speaking country: “It is statistically credible that, within a mission like the U.S.’s, which has almost 1,000 employees, some of them would be Gulenists.”

Tension with Germany

The Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund think tank, Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, agrees with the southern European diplomat about a political will behind the arrest of Turkish employees for U.S. missions.

“Everyone knows that the judicial system in Turkey works in strong coordination with the executive; that’s why the American reaction has been so harsh,” he said, adding that his colleagues in Washington think tanks noticed how sanctions by Russia and travel warnings by Germany during other diplomatic rows put pressure on Turkey.

“The Americans have been considering going down the same route for a while,” he said, citing his discussions on recent trips to the United States.

But the greatest source of tension between Washington and Ankara is Gulen. Over the past year, Turkey has requested his extradition, but the Americans have denied it, citing weak evidence and procedural obstacles. At the end of last month, Erdogan suggested a swap between Gulen and American Christian missionary Andrew Brunson, a pastor who has been detained for more than a year in Turkey over an alleged link to Gulen.

Embarrassingly for U.S. diplomats, the request took place as a delegation of American religious leaders was visiting Turkey. Washington dismissed the offer and called for Brunson’s unconditional release.

A number of officers at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara have interpreted Topuz’s arrest as retaliation for the rejection of the deal. Others see the crisis as further evidence of a lack of strategy and coordination in Turkey’s crafting of foreign policy.

“Indeed, bilateral relations between Ankara and Washington are getting as strained as the ties with Germany,” says Unluhisarcikli of the German Marshall Fund.

German-Turkish relations have been racked by a number of issues, including what Ankara considered an improper ban on campaign events with the Turkish diaspora ahead of this year’s referendum on increasing Erdogan’s powers.

Either way, the U.S.-Turkish confusion is heightened by the fact that Ambassador Bass is leaving; he has already been assigned to his next mission: Afghanistan.