(Bloomberg) -- The State Department threw its support behind the U.S. ambassador to Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested he went rogue in suspending visa services over the arrest of a local Turkish consular employee.
The action announced over the weekend by Ambassador John Bass, which sparked a new crisis in relations with the NATO ally and shook Turkish markets, was made in consultation with Trump administration officials in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday.
“Our ambassadors tend to not do things unilaterally,” she said. “This was coordinated with the State Department, it was coordinated with the White House.”
The action by Bass, and a reciprocal ban by Turkey on processing U.S. visas, fueled new tensions in an already strained relationship. Several days of silence from the State Department and White House sparked speculation that Bass may have acted without approval from Washington, an impression Erdogan encouraged.
“I find the lack of consultation by senior U.S. authorities with our foreign minister awkward,” Erdogan said in televised remarks in Belgrade, Serbia. “If the ambassador acted on his own, then the U.S. administration should not keep him there for a minute.”
Nauert said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke Saturday with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, about the issue. She praised Bass, whom President Donald Trump has tapped to serve as ambassador to Afghanistan, as “one of the best ambassadors we have out there.”
Bass issued a video statement on YouTube Monday saying he hasn’t been told why a Turkish employee working for the U.S. was arrested last week, the second such detention this year.
By pinning the blame on the ambassador, Erdogan may have been trying to find a way out of the crisis while saving face, said Timothy Ash, senior emerging-markets sovereign strategist at Bluebay Asset Management in London.
Erdogan also rebuffed criticism of Turkey’s arrest of the consulate employee, alleging he had ties to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of masterminding a coup attempt last year.
“The information that a second person is there shows something is going on at the consulate in Istanbul,” the president said, adding that the U.S. should evaluate how these “agents” infiltrated the mission or who placed them there.
Nauert said the U.S. has seen no evidence that the consular employees were supporters of Gulen.
Turkey’s ties with the U.S. have frayed since the failed coup against Erdogan in July 2016. The U.S. has refused to extradite Gulen, citing a lack of evidence. In a purge that followed, about 110,000 alleged supporters of Gulen have been removed from state jobs; banks, businesses and media outlets were seized or shut down; and tens of thousands, including army officers, academics and journalists, remain in detention.
Kurds in Syria
The two countries have also feuded over U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, who the government in Ankara says are aligned with the outlawed PKK group at home.
Prime Minister Binal Yildirim touched on both grievances in an address in Ankara. “Why you are still harboring Gulen, does it bind with being an ally?” he said. If our alliance is to continue, “you should stop protecting the PYD-YPG, cousins of the PKK in Syria.”
Turkey’s justice minister, Abdulhamit Gul, said he had rejected a meeting request from Bass. Meanwhile, prosecutors had “invited” another consulate worker to testify, AHaber TV reported on Monday.
Nauert confirmed that a third U.S. employee in Turkey was taken in for questioning but wasn’t arrested.
The U.S.-Turkey relationship seemed poised for an upgrade when Trump took office in January after ties deteriorated during the Obama administration. As recently as last month at the United Nations, Trump said Erdogan was “becoming a friend of mine” and that “frankly, he’s getting high marks.”
Visiting Istanbul in January, Tillerson said he hoped the relationship was on the mend. Asked about those remarks Tuesday, Nauert declined to say whether the secretary would say the same thing now.
“I think the secretary would like to see our relationship improve with Turkey,” she said. “Right now that is being called into question with the actions that the Turkish government took.”
In recent months, Erdogan has increased coordination with Russia and Iran amid deepening tensions with the U.S., and Turkey recently agreed to buy a Russian missile-defense system that isn’t compatible with the arsenals of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners.
Despite their disagreements, both countries will want to patch things up, according to Anthony Skinner, a director with U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft. “Neither Turkey nor the United States have a clear interest in allowing a complete rupture in ties,” he said by email. “Turkey still boasts the second-largest armed forces in NATO and Washington would prefer to avoid pushing Ankara even more into Moscow’s corner.”
That said, “the Trump administration does not have the ability or indeed the appetite to extradite Ankara’s number one concern: Fethullah Gulen,” he said.