Turkish-US ties on the brink as Washington imposes sanctions on Erdogan’s ministers

Turkish nationalists say the crisis between Washington and Turkey is a watershed moment.
Sunday 05/08/2018
US Vice-President Mike Pence speaks at the end of a conference on religious freedom at the State Department in Washington, on  July 26. (AP)
In circles. US Vice-President Mike Pence speaks at the end of a conference on religious freedom at the State Department in Washington, on July 26. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Turkish-US relations have been thrown into the biggest crisis of their 70-year history after Washington imposed sanctions against two Turkish government ministers for their roles in the detention of a US pastor in Turkey.

The pressure from Washington to force the release of pastor Andrew Brunson is turning a bilateral spat into a more fundamental question of sovereignty in the eyes of the Ankara government, making a solution more difficult. Turkey’s currency, the lira, sank to new lows against the dollar and the euro, increasing concerns about a full-blown economic crisis in Turkey.

A meeting between the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo at the on the sidelines of an Association of South-east Asian Nations conference August 3 in Singapore failed to solve the crisis. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not comment on the sanctions decision.

Brunson was arrested nearly two years ago in the western Turkish city of Izmir on charges of cooperating with coup plotters and terrorist organisations. A local court ordered his transfer from jail to house arrest on July 25 on health grounds but the United States says this is not enough. Brunson faces 35 years in prison if convicted in a trial that is scheduled to reconvene October 12.

After public warnings by US President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence, the US government on August 1 placed sanctions on Turkey’s Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu over their role in Brunson’s detention.

The sanctions are symbolic, because the two ministers do not have assets in the United States that could be blocked. However, the political signal of the move for a relationship that goes back to the beginning of the Cold War but is burdened by many problems is devastating.

“The US government might designate additional Turkish individuals and entities if Erdogan refuses to release pastor Andrew Brunson and other US citizens and employees,” Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, said via e-mail. “Regardless of the outcome of the crisis, the diplomatic spat between Washington and Ankara will fuel anti-Americanism in Turkey and further drift the country away from the transatlantic alliance.”

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said it would retaliate against what it called Washington’s “hostile” action. “We call on the US administration to walk back from this wrong decision,” it said in a statement.

In parliament, governing and opposition parties united to reject the US decision. Media commentators called on the government to rearrest Brunson and close the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, which is used as a US military base for attacks against the Islamic State in Syria.

Erdogan rejected Washington’s warnings before the sanctions decision. “You will not be able to force us to make concessions with the help of sanctions,” Erdogan said. “It should not be forgotten that the United States will lose Turkey as a strong and serious partner if it doesn’t change its stance.”

The Brunson crisis has “allowed Erdogan to reframe the debate around an embarrassing and farcical trial as a diplomatic spat about Turkey’s sovereignty,” Erdemir said. “He knows too well that the rally-round-the-flag effect of anti-Americanism would silence the few critical voices in Turkey raising the plight of the pastor.”

Turkish officials say Trump’s calls for Brunson’s release reflect a desire by the US administration to please Christian-fundamentalist voters. “It is out of the question for us to accept threatening language in an Evangelist and Zionist mentality,” Erdogan said on August 1. “We will continue on the path that we believe in without deviating in the slightest from our independence.”

The pressure from Washington shows no sign of producing results. A court in Izmir rejected an appeal by Brunson’s lawyer to free the pastor. Calls by the United States to release three local members of its consular staff detained in Turkey under accusations similar to those levelled against Brunson have also led nowhere.

The cases are additional complications for a relationship burdened by deep differences. Washington has angered Ankara with continued support for a Kurdish militia in northern Syria that is seen as a terrorist group by Turkey. The Erdogan government has failed to convince US authorities to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric who is accused by Ankara of masterminding a coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Turkey says a senior manager of a state-owned bank was convicted in a US court because of fabricated evidence provided by Gulen supporters.

The United States is criticising Erdogan’s decision to buy the S-400 Russian missile defence system. A bill passed by the US Senate, but awaiting further legislative action, would delay the delivery of 100 US-made F-35 fighter jets to Turkey because of the S-400 deal. Erdogan has sought to build a strong relationship with Russia, a key player in Syria, and has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin a dozen times in two years.

Turkish nationalists say the crisis between Washington and Turkey is a watershed moment. “The strategic partnership between Turkey and the United States is finished,” wrote Ibrahim Karagul, editor of the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper. “The United States has become the biggest threat facing Turkey.”

No Turkish government official has advocated taking the country out of NATO or other institutions in which Turkey and the United States work together but Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Programme at the Washington Institute, said the rift could have long-term consequences. “A potential rupture between Turkey and US could result in the unmooring of Turkey from the West,” Cagaptay wrote on Twitter.

In a sign that the United States has lost its position as a central factor in Turkey’s foreign policy, Erdogan excluded the Trump administration from the list of invitees for a meeting on Syria, scheduled to take place September 7 in Istanbul. The Turkish leader said Russia, Germany and France had been invited to the conference.