Jonathan Spyer, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum and veteran journalist covering Middle East conflicts, spoke to participants in a November 9 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the cancellation of his U.S. visa apparently at the behest of Turkey’s Erdoğan regime.
Spyer’s ordeal began in August 2019 when he was informed by the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem that his U.S. visa had been revoked with no explanation or recourse to appeal. When his application for a new visa was denied, Spyer learned the reason for the State Department’s decision from a form document with a checkmark next to a box stating that the applicant had “engaged in terrorist activities or was associated with a terrorist organization.”
Having never been accused, let alone charged with any terrorism-related offense, Spyer surmised that his investigative journalism career interviewing often-shady people and organizations had caused some highly influential party to take offense. But who?
Although the “list of probable enemies” who might seek to harm Spyer’s work is not short, few had the means to do so. The likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and ISIS “don’t have people in Washington, DC who can get those decisions made.” The only one on the list with the “clout in DC to get a person banned,” he concluded, is “the government of the Republic of Turkey, that’s to say the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”
Jonathan Spyer (right) in the Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan on March 31, 2011.
Spyer, who had been travelling regularly to the US since 2004 without experiencing any problems, concluded that it was his journalistic work interviewing members of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that led to his ban. The PKK is a Kurdish nationalist organization that has been engaged in an insurgency against Turkey since 1984 and has been designated terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. “I’m by no means a supporter of the PKK,” said Spyer, “but … my writing often, when appropriate, has expressed support and sympathy [for] Kurdish national aspirations.”
As for why the Turkish government’s grievances about him would find a sympathetic ear in Washington, Spyer observed that Turkey “has a powerful economy,” while the Trump administration’s “generally positive record … vis a vis the Middle East,” has had a “worrying gap” – its tolerant attitude towards Erdoğan’s aggression in the region, especially its military incursion into Kurdish-held areas of northeastern Syria in the fall of last year. Spyer covered the Syrian Kurdish side of this conflict and reported on the devastation that followed Turkey’s invasion, in particular “a series of murders of civilian Kurdish officials.”
According to Spyer, the Erdoğan regime’s interference with his visa is a “dangerous development” with far-reaching implications beyond his own personal ordeal:
Erdoğan understands the power of critical analysis and he does his best to silence it. … [U]nfortunately, the servants of the current Turkish government appear to be interested in extending their activities against the practice of free journalism and analysis outside the borders of Turkey and into the territory of officially-allied states such as the United States.
Spyer’s visa denial was eventually reversed after he sought the intercession of prominent colleagues and wrote a high-profile September 2020 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. However, other journalists and researchers have also fallen victim to Erdoğan’s attempts to “harass and silence voices” critical of the Turkish regime. That Erdoğan can prevent Western audiences from hearing “factually-based” reporting by people who “know that regime well and the harm it is doing” is a “tragedy.”
“Erdoğan understands the power of critical analysis and he does his best to silence it.”
Spyer expressed hope that President-elect Joe Biden, who has been “deeply critical of Erdoğan” and expressed sympathy for Kurdish causes, will adopt a “tougher response” to Turkey.
He also argued that Washington should consider lifting its designation of the PKK as a terrorist organization. While there was “real evidence in support of the designation” in the early years of the PKK’s insurgency, said Spyer, the group has “gone through a process of maturing … of transformation” and its armed struggle is today conducted “in its entirety against Turkish security forces,” not civilians. “The terrorist designation of the PKK is more to do with politics and the interest of powerful states than it is to do with … the nature or activities of that organization.”
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.