The detention of a American pastor Andrew Brunson for nearly two years by the Turkish police on accusations of terror and espionage is once again disrupting US-Turkish relations. Despite US President Donald Trump’s calls to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release him, he is still in custody. The Turkish authorities have transferred Brunson from prison to house arrest, a move that falls short of satisfying the US government.
In a tweet on July 19, Trump stressed that it was “a total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected US Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long,” adding that ”Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!”
As recent developments show, Trump’s patience seems to have run out. Using again his favorite social medium, Trump tweeted last Thursday that Brunson should be released immediately, threatening Ankara with large sanctions if it continued to ignore the American diktat. For those who closely follow US-Turkish relations, Trump’s rhetoric seems to have diverged from the usual, as it is harsher, but more important, it is also accompanied by a direct threat against a NATO ally.
Turkey International Financial Institutions Act
Trump is not alone on this, since the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate has advanced a bill titled the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act that would “restrict the provision by international financial institutions of loans and financial and technical assistance to the Government of Turkey, and for other purposes.”
The bipartisan committee calls on Turkey to end the arbitrary detention of American citizens. By exerting economic pressure on Ankara, the committee is trying to press the government of Turkey to release Brunson. Among other things, the bill instructs prominent financial institutions, the International Monetary Fund included, to restrict Turkey’s access to loans or any other economic assistance.
It is apparent that US congress members are using any economic means they have at their disposal to coerce Turkey into succumbing to US demands. Turkey is one of the largest recipients of economic assistance from the IMF. The Turkish economy has been going from bad to worse with very high inflation, high interest rates and continuous devaluation of the Turkish lira against the US dollar. Over the last five years the lira lost 50% of its value, and this year 20%.
The US Congress is highly annoyed by Turkish actions as regards human-rights violations and foreign-policy decisions. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees have adopted a bill that would bar delivery of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Turkey until the US government provides an assessment of the relations between Washington and Ankara.
The bill was drafted over concerns about what the consequences on US security might be from Ankara’s decision to buy the S-400 air defense system from Russia. In particular, there are concerns that the system is not compatible with US systems. Furthermore, American lawmakers maintain that Russia might be in a position to intercept sensitive information and other intelligence.
The committees are also calling on Turkey to release “wrongfully detained” American citizens Brunson and Serkan Golke, a Turkish-American scientist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on terrorism charges.
In a first reaction to Trump’s threat, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a tweet that “Turkey will not tolerate threats from anybody, rule of law is for everyone; no exception.”
Cavusoglu’s tweet includes a hint that points to America’s refusal to hand over to Turkey Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric Ankara blames for the failed coup of July 2016. Last September, Erdogan tried to link the two cases by saying, “Give as Gulen and we will give you Brunson.” Washington persistently refused to hand over Gulen to Turkey, on the ground that there is a lack of evidence that would permit US courts to authorize his extradition to Turkey.
In any case, Ankara will continue following the same tactic by trying to balance White House decisions and Congress’ legislation, probably expecting that the presidency has more leverage on foreign-policy issues. However, Trump’s recent threats indicate that Ankara must act in order to promote its interests.
On the other hand, beyond any threats and counter-threats, the US will continue to pursue a very cautious approach as regards Turkey, because as noted in a previous analysis, it does not want to lose such a crucial member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Such a loss would mean a tremendous alteration in the balance of power in the Middle East that would run against US geopolitical interests. Erdogan seems to be very well aware of this when he warns Washington that “it will lose a sincere partner, Turkey, if it imposes sanctions.”