TWO weeks after Donald Trump declared they were as good as ever, America’s relations with Turkey have sunk to their lowest point in over four decades. On October 8th the American embassy in Ankara announced it was suspending visa services across the country to “reassess” the Turkish government’s commitment to the security of its diplomatic facilities and staff members. Within hours, Turkey countered by saying it would no longer accept visa applications by American citizens. (About 450,000 Americans visited Turkey last year.)
The Turkish lira plummeted as much as 6.6% against the dollar on the news, the biggest drop since the abortive coup of July 2016. Turkish Airlines, the country’s national carrier, saw its shares fall by 8%.
The spark that lit the powder keg came on October 4th, when police in Istanbul arrested Metin Topuz, a Turkish member of staff at the American consulate, on charges relating to the coup and to espionage. (A total of about 50,000 people have been arrested on similar charges over the past year.) The bulk of the evidence against Mr Topuz seemed to consist of conversations he had conducted four years ago with Turkish officials linked to the Gulen movement, the group accused of spearheading last year’s failed coup. The embassy has described the allegations against him as “wholly without merit.”
The incident is far from a first. A translator at another American consulate in Turkey was arrested in March on suspicion of links to an outlawed Kurdish insurgent group. An American pastor, Andrew Brunson, has languished in a Turkish prison for a year over alleged contacts with Gulen sympathisers. And reports in the Turkish media suggest that an arrest warrant has been issued for another Turkish national employed at the Istanbul consulate.
Despite Mr Trump’s remark, made during a meeting on September 21st with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that the two NATO countries were “as close as we’ve ever been”, relations have been heading south for at least a couple of years. Most Turks continue to believe that the Americans had a hand in the failed coup, a belief compounded by the fact that its suspected ringleader, the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, lives in Pennsylvania. Mr Erdogan has sought the imam’s extradition for over a year, despite failing to produce conclusive evidence linking him to the coup.
Turkey is also livid with America, its NATO ally, for arming a Kurdish militia it considers a terrorist group in the war against the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) in neighbouring Syria. America, meanwhile, remains angry that Turkey turned a blind eye to IS and other jihadist networks on its own side of the border until about 2015. Mr Erdogan’s increasingly toxic reputation in Washington took another hit earlier this spring, after his bodyguards were caught on video beating up non-violent protesters a mile from the White House.
Yet another source of tension is Turkey’s increasing reliance on Russia for its security needs. Last month, the Turkish government confirmed that it had made a down-payment on the purchase of Russia’s S-400 air-defence system. This week, Turkey and Russia launched a joint operation intended to contain the spread of jihadist groups in the Syrian province of Idlib.
For America, the arrest of the consular staffers and the continued imprisonment of the pastor have struck a particularly sensitive nerve. Officials in Washington seem to have reached the conclusion that Turkey’s government is using the men as hostages in an attempt to put pressure on the American judiciary. (Germany’s government considers a dozen or so German nationals in Turkish custody, including a couple of journalists, part of a similar strategy.) Mr Erdogan no longer bothers to suggest otherwise. “They tell us to give them the pastor,” he said in a speech on September 28th, referring to Mr Brunson. “You have a pastor as well. Give us [Mr Gulen] , then we will try him [Mr Brunson] and give him to you.”
Most analysts agree it is in the interest of both sides to prevent the situation from escalating. That is indeed the most likely scenario. But with leaders as impulsive and as thin-skinned as Mr Trump and Mr Erdogan at the helm, nothing is certain.