Turkey and the US have scaled back visa services. But their strained ties began after Turkey requested the FETO leader's extradition.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with the US President Donald Trump during the United Nations General Assembly, September 21, 2017, in New York.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with the US President Donald Trump during the United Nations General Assembly, September 21, 2017, in New York. (AFP)

A indictment by a Turkish prosecutor on Wednesday brought the already strained relations between Ankara and Washington to a new low, as each respective country suspended bilateral visa services “for security reasons.”  

"Recent events have forced the United States government to reassess the commitment of government of Turkey to the security of US missions and personnel," the US mission in Ankara said, while announcing the suspension.

Turkey later released a statement that was word-for-word a carbon copy of the US announcement. However, it went one step further by saying: “There would be also no service at border gates and no e-visa services for US citizens.” 

Let’s look at the real reasons behind this move. 

December 2013 indictments

The roots of the crisis between Ankara and Washington date back to the December 17 and 25, 2013 indictments, when Turkish prosecutors linked to the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation or FETO started a corruption investigation into senior members of the Turkish government. 

The government later said the documents were fabricated in a bid to topple Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time. He is now the country's president.  

Ministers of the government and their relatives were included in the Turkish probes, which were later dropped. 

There is one top suspect in the Turkish probe who is still in custody in the United States.

Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab, is now in jail awaiting trial in the US for breaching sanctions on Iran.

The US prosecutors later also indicted Turkey’s former economy minister Zafer Caglayan for the same charges that Zarrab faces. Turkey has described this decision as the US “proceeding of the 17-25 December cases” that were dropped in Turkey. 

President Erdogan said the US probes on Turkish citizens over breaching US law are illegal since Turkey has no obligation to follow US sanctions on Iran. 

“There are very peculiar smells coming from this issue,” Erdogan said, commenting on the decision of US prosecutors to charge Caglayan.

Since 2013 Turkey has accused the US authorities protecting FETO leader Fetullah Gulen, who has been in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999. 

Last week, Turkish police arrested a Turkish national who works at the US Consulate in Istanbul.

Prosecutors said the suspect, who has been identified as Metin Topuz, has links with FETO members who carried out the December 17-25 operations. 

Who is Metin Topuz?

Metin Topuz was arrested late on Wednesday on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and Turkey’s government,” and “spying,” according to prosecutors' indictment. 

His alleged links included police commissioners and fugitive former public prosecutor Zekeriya Oz, who has been accused of "forming an organisation to commit crime" and "attempting to overthrow the government by use of force." Oz is believed to have fled the country.

The prosecution indictment claims that 58-year old Topuz had contact with 121 high-ranked FETO members and helped the FETO suspects to flee Turkey, especially for those who fled to the United States. 

The US mission in Turkey demanded the immediate release of its staff. The leak of the case to the media also disturbed the US.

"I am deeply disturbed that some people in the Turkish government prefer to try this case through media outlets rather than properly pursuing the case in a court of law before a judge,” said US ambassador to Turkey, John Bass on Friday. 

Turkish foreign ministry, in response to US calls, said Topuz was not in the official list of staff of the US Consulate nor does he have any diplomatic or consular immunity.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag  has criticised the US for employing Topuz.

"The important thing to be highlighted here is the presence and employment of a terror-linked person at the US embassy without the knowledge of Turkish authorities," Bozdag said.

Turkish authorities have already criticised the US mission in Turkey for contacting one of the leading figures of failed July 15 coup attempt that killed 249 people and injured more than 2,000 others. 

In a previous spat with the US embassy in Ankara, Turkish media reported that one of those responsible for the coup attempt, Adil Öksüz, received a phone call from the US embassy after July 15.

Adil Oksuz is believed to be number one figure of the coup attempt and his phone calls were monitored by Turkish authorities. He is believed to have fled the country.

The US diplomatic mission said they phoned him to let him know his visa was cancelled, but diplomats who have knowledge about the issue have said consulates do not call applicants to tell them their visas are cancelled. 

Extradition of Gulen 

Turkey has requested the extradition of Fetullah Gulen from the US several times since the 17-25 December cases, but it stepped up pressure following the last year’s coup attempt. 

The US authorities said Turkey has yet to provide enough evidence for the US Justice Department to act on the request for Gulen's extradition.

However, Turkish authorities said they sent 80 boxes of documents with evidence linking FETO to the July 15 coup attempt. 

Late September, Turkish President Erdogan once again called the US to extradite Gulen, with a swap offer this time. 

" 'Give us the pastor back', they say. You have one pastor [Gulen] as well. Give him to us," Erdogan said. "Then we will try him [Brunson] and give him to you," Erdogan said.

Christian missionary Andrew Brunson, who ran a church in Izmir on Turkey's western coast and has been held since October 2016, was arrested for allegedly spying, divulging state secrets and for links to FETO.

US-YPG allegiance 

The US support for the YPG militants in Syria is another obstacle that caused relations to be strained between Ankara and Washington, as Turkey repeatedly called its NATO ally to stop giving weapons to the terror group.

Washington sees the YPG as “a strong ally” in the fight against Daesh in Syria, while Turkey says the group is PKK’s Syria extension, adding it is “deeply concerned” that its ally working with such a group. PKK has been fighting Turkish state for more than 30 years and the fight led more than 40,000 people being killed, including civilians.

During testimony before a Senate panel last year, former US Defense Chief Ash Carter admitted that the YPG is linked to the PKK.

However, the US kept its support for the group and stepped it up since President Donald Trump took office. 

In wake of the rifts that had already existed between Ankara and Washington, the two NATO allies, tensions between the two increased following the diplomatic crisis over mutually suspension of visa services.