The U.S. is sanctioning two senior Turkish officials over the ongoing detention of an American pastor, whose case has ripped open the deep divides in the two countries’ alliance.
The White House announced Wednesday that Turkey‘s Interior Minister and Justice Minister would be hit with sanctions after repeated attempts by the Trump administration to negotiate for Andrew Brunson’s release and threats from President Donald Trump himself that Turkey would be penalized if he weren’t.
Sanctioning senior members of an ally’s government is a rare move that will escalate the standoff over Brunson’s case and likely infuriate Turkey’s government. But it comes as Turkey, furious with the U.S. over a host of other issues, has increasingly distanced itself from its NATO ally the United States in a slow shift that could have dramatic implications for the region.
Turkey responded that the decision “will not go unanswered,” according to Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu, adding, “We cannot solve our problems unless the U.S. administration understands that it will not get its demands with unlawful ways.”
A 50-year old Christian pastor from North Carolina who’s lived in Turkey for over two decades, Brunson was detained in October 2016 amid a sweeping crackdown on opposition by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following an attempted coup. He was charged with espionage as well as aiding outlawed Kurdish militants and a Turkish cleric based in the U.S. who has been accused of fomenting that coup attempt — allegations that he has denied and that the U.S. has said are not credible.
Last week, a Turkish court released him to house arrest, pending a new court date in October. While calling that a good first step, top Trump administration officials expressed outrage over his continued detention and demanded that he be released.
President Trump even warned in a tweet that there would be “large sanctions on Turkey” if Brunson, “this innocent man of faith,” wasn’t freed immediately.
Turkish officials have said they cannot intervene in the judicial system. The State Department declined to say outright on Tuesday whether the U.S. believes that is the case, but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the two Turkish cabinet officials “played leading roles in the arrest and detention of Pastor Brunson.”
“We’ve seen no evidence that Pastor Brunson has done anything wrong, and we believe he is a victim of unfair and unjust attention by the government of Turkey,” Sanders added.
The Treasury Department, which oversees U.S. sanctions, said that Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu are “leaders of Turkish government organizations responsible for implementing Turkey’s serious human rights abuses.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called his counterpart, Foreign Minister Çavusoglu, Wednesday morning to inform him of the decision. “After numerous conversations between President Trump and President Erdogan and my conversations with Foreign Minister Çavusoglu, President Trump concluded that these sanctions are the appropriate action,” he said in a statement.
With the sanctions, any assets owned by either official in U.S. jurisdiction will be frozen and Americans will be barred from doing business with them. It’s unclear how big an impact that will have on them individually, with Justice Minister Gül tweeting that he has no money, not even a dime outside Turkey.
But the move has infuriated Turkey. The Foreign Ministry called on the U.S. administration to reverse its “wrong decision,” vowing, “Turkey will respond likewise.”
After Trump’s threat of sanctions last week, Erdogan warned that Turkey will challenge the U.S. if there are continued threats: “We will not step back when faced with sanctions. They should not forget that they will lose a sincere partner,” he said, according to Turkish media.
Even as the U.S. escalates the crisis, the administration insists it is seeking a diplomatic solution and sees Turkey as an ally. Pompeo and Çavusoglu will meet on the sidelines of a major Asian summit this weekend, according to State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, who added, “We are still pursuing a diplomatic approach with the Turkish government … Turkey knows our position well. Pastor Brunson must be released from house arrest and brought back home. This has gone on for far too long.”
Relations between the U.S. and Turkey, where the U.S. has an airbase key to the fight against ISIS and stockpiled with 50 nuclear bombs, have been souring for a few years now. A vital ally in the Middle East and Europe, Turkey has increasingly come into the crosshairs of U.S. lawmakers for its human rights record, its warming ties to Russia and Iran, and its sanctions evasion.
Before Wednesday’s announcement, a bipartisan group of senators had introduced legislation to withhold international loans to Turkey until it releases Brunson and other U.S. citizens being detained. Congress also just passed a sweeping defense bill that in part blocks the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey until the Pentagon completes an assessment of U.S.-Turkish relations.
The last time Turkey was hit with U.S. sanctions may be as far back as the 1970’s when Congress imposed an arms embargo on Turkey and Cyprus over the Turkish invasion.
Seen as a strongman by much of the western world, Erdogan has tightened his grip on power since the 2016 attempted coup by holding a contested referendum that eliminated the position of prime minister and strengthened the presidency. He has had tens of thousands of political opponents, journalists, and government officials jailed since 2016 on charges of being a Gulenist, a follower of the cleric Fetullah Gulen who Erdogan holds responsible for the coup attempt.
Turkey has demanded the U.S. turn over Gulen, who is a legal permanent resident in Pennsylvania. While the Trump transition team once considered secretly kidnapping him and delivering him to the Turks, according to then-adviser and former CIA Director James Woolsey, the U.S. has said it is still waiting on the necessary evidence to arrest and extradite Gulen.
Brunson’s case has been tied to Gulen as well by Erdogan, who once suggested a “swap” — something the U.S. dismissed.
It’s hard to overstate the importance Turkey places on Gulen. Turkey’s final Prime Minister Binali Yildirim likened his living in the U.S. to a country harboring the masterminds of the 9/11 terror attacks during a visit to Washington last November — a betrayal that has sparked outrage.
Perhaps even more agitating to Erdogan and his inner circle, however, is a U.S. federal court case against a former Turkish economy minister and other Turkish officials. U.S. prosecutors alleged the Turkish officials conspired to violate U.S. sanctions on Iran in a billion-dollar scheme, with the help of a Turkish-Iranian gold trader named Reza Zarrab.
Zarrab pleaded guilty to his role in the conspiracy, laundering Iranian oil and gas revenues through U.S. banks, and as a key witness for the prosecution, testified that he paid bribes to then-foreign minister Zafer Çaglayan and that Erdogan himself ordered that two Turkish banks participate in the conspiracy.
Erdogan has blasted the trial as a “plot” to overthrow his government, even though the country’s prime minister at the time Ahmet Davutoglu admitted in December 2017 that they did not comply with U.S. sanctions: “We have never been hypocritical when it comes to the embargo against Iran. We have never complied with the U.S.’s one-sided embargo. We can not,” according to multiple press reports.
The State Department has dismissed the allegation of a U.S.-backed coup as “ridiculous” —- and in turn, criticized Turkey for its detention of American citizens as well. In addition to Brunson, as many as a dozen Americans, many of whom are dual citizens of Turkey, have been detained in Erdogan’s sweeping purge.
The divisions go deeper than personal issues, too. Turkey has expressed outrage over U.S. support for Kurdish groups battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. has been arming, training, and supporting the YPG, a Kurdish group in Syria with ties to Kurds in Turkey, including the terror group the PKK. The U.S. makes a distinction between the YPG and the PKK, but Turkey does not.
For its part, the U.S. wants Turkey to cut back on its ties with Iran and Russia, including abandoning the purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia — which could violate U.S. sanctions on Russia and would violate NATO’s requirements that all member states use weapons systems that are interoperable.
If either side is concerned about the growing rift, they have not shown it. The Trump administration has engaged in intensive diplomacy with the Turks to assuage concerns about the Kurds, for example, but Wednesday’s sanctions heighten the tensions.
Turkey has already warned that a break in relations would hurt the U.S. more than them. As then-Prime Minister Yildirim told ABC News in November, “The deterioration or the severance of the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey will have a big price, but this price will be higher for the United States.”