Turkey and West climb down from brink of biggest diplomatic crisis

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a meeting with EU Council President Charles Michel in Brussels, Belgium March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Turkey and its Western allies climbed down from a full-blown diplomatic crisis on Monday after foreign embassies said that they abide by diplomatic conventions on non-interference, averting a threatened expulsion of 10 ambassadors.

President Tayyip Erdogan, who said at the weekend he had ordered the envoys to be declared “persona non grata” for seeking the release of a jailed philanthropist, told a news conference they had stepped back and would be more careful.

“Our goal is never to create crises, it is to protect the rights, laws, honour and sovereignty of our country,” Erdogan said in a televised address after chairing a Cabinet meeting.

“With a new statement made by the same embassies today, a step back was taken from this slander against our country and our nation. I believe these ambassadors … will be more careful in their statements regarding Turkey’s sovereign rights.”

Despite his defiant tone, Erdogan’s comments on Monday were a marked change to cool tensions after threats he made at the weekend.

The ambassadors, including the U.S. envoy, had called on authorities last week to free Osman Kavala, a philanthropist detained for four years on charges of financing protests and involvement in an attempted coup. He denies the charges.

The public call infuriated Ankara, which said the diplomats – also from Germany, France, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland – were interfering in Turkey’s internal affairs.

As Erdogan convened his ministers on Monday afternoon for a session which could have confirmed the expulsions and triggered the deepest rift with the West in his 19 years in power, several embassies put out a brief statement.

“The United States notes that it maintains compliance with Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” the U.S. Embassy said on Twitter. The other embassies published similar messages or re-tweeted the U.S. message.

A Turkish version of the U.S. statement said the embassy “confirms” compliance with the convention, which some observers said could be read to suggest that the embassies were pledging future compliance.

“Strategic ambiguity at work … allows Erdogan’s spin doctors to claim that the West has surrendered, while the English version gives the impression back home that the West has stood its ground,” said former opposition parliamentarian Aykan Erdemir on Twitter.

The U.S. State Department later said Monday’s statement on Twitter meant “to underscore that the statement that we put out on October 18 was consistent with Article 41”, adding it would pursue dialogue with Turkey.

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