Ankara Hardens Stance Against US as Crisis Over Detained Pastor Deepens
Ankara is vowing to hit back against Washington’s sanctions on the Turkish justice and interior ministers in connection with the detention of American protestant pastor Andrew Brunson.
Turkey Vice President Fuat Oktay threatened retaliation in a tweet Thursday, “We will not hesitate for a split second to do what great nations must do under the leadership of our president.”
However, in a written statement, Berat Albayrak, the powerful economics minister, indicated a less confrontational approach.
“Our priority is to ensure that this process is settled through diplomacy and constructive efforts that would be consistent with the relations between the two allied countries sharing a strong historical background,” Albayrak said.
Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu were hit by financial and diplomatic measures Wednesday, for what Washington called their role in the unjust detention of Brunson.
The American pastor is on trial on terrorism and espionage charges for links to followers of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed by Ankara for the 2016 failed coup and whom Turkey is seeking to extradite.
Last month, in a move widely seen as a gesture to Washington, Brunson was moved to house arrest after nearly two years in jail. But U.S. President Donald Trump is demanding Brunson’s return to America. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists Brunson’s detention is a matter for the courts.
Washington accuses Ankara of hostage-taking, claiming the pastor’s detention is part of efforts to extract concessions over several disputes between the countries.
WATCH: Crisis Over Detained Pastor Deepens
News of U.S. sanctions saw Turkish financial markets falling, with the lira hitting record lows amid fears Washington could target Turkey’s fragile economy.
The U.S. Treasury is considering a significant fine against the Turkish state-controlled Halkbank for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. According to local and international reports, Ankara had pressed for a reduced penalty against Halkbank as part of a deal to release Brunson. Turkish officials have rejected the reports.
A fine is viewed as powerful leverage against Ankara.
“Just float the news Halkbank is about to receive a major fine, the leak itself would cause such massive damage in Turkish markets,” political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners said, “which would reverberate in inflation, corporate balance sheets, etc., etc. I think we would have to hoist the white flag.”
But Ankara’s robust stand against Washington is playing well domestically.
In a rare display of political unity, the main opposition parties, except for the pro-Kurdish HDP, joined Erdogan’s ruling AKP Party in issuing a joint statement condemning Washington’s sanctions as “unacceptable and incompatible neither with principles of friendship, alliance, NATO membership,” read the statement.
The leader of the main opposition CHP Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, demanded retaliation.
“In line with the reciprocity, we are expecting similar actions to be taken against U.S. ministers,” said Kilicdaroglu.
“The anti-Americanism in the past decade has hit a record high among all the social classes, and from all the political parties from left to right,” former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen said, “so there is no political bill to pay for the government to go against the United States.”
Despite such rhetoric and strong support for facing down Washington, analysts predict Ankara will likely have to step back.
“Turkey has this unfortunate habit of political hostage taking. We’ve seen this before,” Yesilada said. “German national journalist Deniz Yucel comes to mind, who was jailed without charge for more than a year, to extract concessions from Germany. Germany did not relent. It put the word out, advising banks not to lend to Turkey. Within a few months, Yucel was in Frankfurt.”
But given the strong anti-American sentiment that reverberates among Erdogan’s electoral base, stepping back for the president is not predicted to be easy.
Diplomatic efforts are continuing between the NATO allies. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reportedly spoke Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The two men are expected to meet Friday on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting in Singapore.
“For Brunson, I would prefer not to overplay my hand and send him back immediately,” Selcen said. “From then on, there will be new paths to explore to put relations back on track. But it won’t be easy. I think Erdogan is strong enough to package this and sell this to his supporters.”
Erdogan has refrained mainly from speaking on the controversy and avoided directly criticizing Trump since the announcement of sanctions. The few comments the Turkish president has made over Brunson’s detention have been mostly restrained.
Analysts suggest Ankara is likely to be looking for a face-saving exit strategy before irreparable damage is done to both U.S.-Turkish relations and the economy.