(CNSNews.com) – Turkey said Sunday it was suspending all visa services for U.S. citizens at its missions in the U.S., after the American Embassy in Ankara suspended non-immigrant visa services following the arrest of a consulate employee in the Islamist government’s ongoing crackdown on dissent.
“Recent events have forced the U.S. government to reassess the commitment of the government of Turkey to the security of the U.S. Mission facilities and personnel,” the U.S. Embassy said earlier in the day.
“In order to minimize the number of the visitors to our Embassy and Consulates while this assessment proceeds, effective immediately we have suspended all non-immigrant visa services at all U.S. diplomatic facilities in Turkey.”
In its tit-for-tat move, the Turkish Embassy in Washington used near-identical language: “Recent events have forced the Turkish government to reassess the commitment of the government of the U.S. to the security of the Turkish Mission facilities and personnel.”
“In order to minimize the number of the visitors to our diplomatic and consular missions in the U.S. while this assessment proceeds, effective immediately we have suspended all visa services regarding the U.S. citizens at our diplomatic and consular missions in the U.S.”
The spat reflected deeper fissures in the relationship:
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is angry that the U.S. won’t extradite Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric who has repeatedly denied Ankara’s accusations that he masterminded a failed coup attempt last year.
The authoritarian Turkish leader also rejects U.S. arrest warrants issued for members of his bodyguard accused of assaulting protestors near the Turkish Embassy in Washington last May, and is unhappy about President Trump’s decision to arm a Syrian Kurdish group fighting against ISIS.
For its part, the U.S. has criticized Erdogan’s post-coup repression, which has seen tens of thousands of people arrested and mass purges of civil servants and others over supposed links to the coup and Gulen.
Further, this past weekend marked the first anniversary of the arrest of an American evangelical pastor, Andrew Brunson, also accused of links to Gulen. Erdogan recently hinted that he could release Brunson in exchange for Gulen, prompting charges that the pastor has effectively become a “hostage.”
The long-simmering tensions were ratcheted up when a Turk working at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul was arrested on Wednesday, accused of terrorism, espionage, and links to Gulen’s movement.
Turkish media say Metin Topuz stands accused of acting as a liaison between Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, and alleged co-conspirators in Turkey. He has been remanded in custody and the Turkish foreign ministry underlined that he does not have diplomatic or consular immunity.
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara called the allegations “wholly without merit,” and outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass accused the Turkish government of “pursuing vengeance” rather than justice, and said Topuz was being tried by Turkish media outlets, rather than in the courts.
The U.S. visa service suspension came a day after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly spoke by phone to his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was quoted in Turkish media as saying “bilateral consulate affairs” were discussed, among other issues.
Late last month the State Department in a travel warning cautioned U.S. citizens traveling to Turkey about threats from terrorist groups, but also about the government crackdown and the detention of U.S. citizens.
“Heightened anti-American rhetoric has the potential to inspire independent actors to carry out acts of violence against U.S. citizens,” the department warned.
As a member of NATO Turkey is ostensibly an ally of the U.S., but Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies at home and foreign policy stances have long concerned Washington.
On the same day as Topuz was arrested, Erdogan visited the regime in Iran, and then returned to host Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Ankara. A week earlier he played host to Russian President Vladimir Putin.