A very public diplomatic spat erupted last week between the U.S. and Turkey over the fate of American Pastor Andrew Brunson—who has been jailed by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the last 21 months.
U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who famously fist-bumped Erdogan during the NATO summit last month, apparently thought he had a deal with the Turkish president. The Washington Post called it “a carom shot” that would free a Turkish woman held in Israel as a trade-off for the release of Brunson.
The woman, Ebru Ozkan, was deported from Israel on July 15. But the deal for Brunson fell apart. He was allowed to move from a Turkish prison to house arrest due to health concerns, yet remains captive. And after what appears to have been an acrimonious phone call between Trump and Erdogan on Thursday morning, as Trump had to recognize another of his deals with foreign leaders was falling apart, things started to get really ugly.
Experts say that the aftermath of Trump’s “Twitter diplomacy” threatening Erdogan with sanctions reduces the chance Brunson will be coming home any time soon, and makes a tense time in an already complex relationship even worse.
Bulent Aliriza, Director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Erdogan has reacted badly to the tweets and suggests winning Brunson’s freedom is now “less likely than before.” Aliriza also says the Erdogan government is “obviously digging in their heels,” leading to “a very serious deterioration.”
In a move that may have blindsided Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the midst of delicate negotiations for Brunson’s freedom (there are conflicting reports), Vice President Mike Pence warned Thursday at a conference on religious freedom, which Pompeo was hosting, that Turkey would face significant sanctions if it continued to hold Brunson. Trump followed with his tweet demanding Brunson be freed “immediately.”
“No one dictates to Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted in response. Spokesman for the Foreign Ministry Hami Aksoy wrote that the “rhetoric of threat against Turkey is unacceptable” and the messages coming from Washington “totally disregard our alliance and friendly relations between our countries.”
President Erdogan also shot back at the U.S. in the aftermath of Trump and Pence's public comments.
“You cannot make Turkey take a step back through sanctions,” he said, directly referring to the U.S. in a speech Sunday. “In my opinion, these are all [parts of] psychological warfare... If the U.S. does not change this attitude they should not forget they will lose a sincere and strong partner like Turkey.”
Brunson has been detained for the crime of “Christianization” in a Muslim majority country where the nation’s former militant secularism has been eroded under Erdogan’s Islamist government and proselytizing Christians have come under increasing pressure. But that’s not all. A grab-bag of charges have been leveled against him, making the pastor sound like some hardened enemy of the state.
He also is accused of “spying” for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and what Ankara calls the Fetullah Terrorist Organization. The former Erdogan ally Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim educator and political organizer with millions of followers, has been blamed for starting a failed 2016 coup that nearly cost the Turkish president his life as well as his office. Thousands of arrests followed, sometimes on charges as specious as possession of a U.S. dollar bill.
Brunson has lived in Turkey for the past 25 years and he raised his children there. His daughter Jacqueline Funari, in an emotional speech on Wednesday to the conference Pompeo hosted, talked about how sad she was that her father was not able to walk her down the aisle at her recent wedding. The one time she saw him in prison last year, she said, “I remember how broken and tired and desperate he sounded,” but also how much he took solace in his faith. “It is a privilege to suffer for the sake of Christ,” she quoted her father saying. “Blessed am I as I suffer for him. Blessed am I a I am slandered. Blessed am I as I am lied about. Blessed am I as I am imprisoned. Blessed am I as I share his suffering.”
But the issue at hand is about more than one man. Turkey has detained several U.S. citizens and members of the U.S. embassy staff, and has publicly refused to extradite any detainees unless the U.S. hands over Gülen, who is living in the United States.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has already passed a bill that will block loans to Turkey from the World Bank and other international organizations, and deny the country the F-35 fighter jets it wants.
“This week’s long overdue development in Pastor Brunson’s case is not enough — the United States also insists on the release of our locally employed staff, and an end to the harassment and targeting of U.S. citizens,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wrote in a statement. “We must continue to move forward... until Turkey ceases the egregious policy of detention and harassment of U.S. citizens on specious grounds for political gain.”
Turkey is also facing a downturned economy that won’t take sanctions—like the ones Trump has proposed—very well. These developments all have built up over time, with a tweet from Trump serving as the tipping point.
Thursday’s tweets “will complicate efforts to find a quiet diplomatic solution,” says Amanda Sloat, senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings. “Erdogan won't want to be seen as backing down in the face of U.S. pressure, but he is facing real economic challenges domestically that make him vulnerable to U.S. sanctions.
“We’re unhappy. They’re unhappy. This has been bubbling for some time,” says Aaron Miller, Middle East Program Director at the Wilson Center.
The aftermath of this confrontation between two NATO allies could have long-term effects. Both nations have had to work together in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, only recently resolving an issue in Syria where Turkish forces were attacking a U.S. allied force. Erdogan is also known to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria-related issues, and recently taunted, “Any kind of solidarity between us makes someone jealous.”
While Miller says that both the U.S. and Turkey “have a stake in keeping the relations in balance” and Pompeo spoke to his Russian counterpart after the sanctions threat, Trump and Erdogan’s fist-bumping days may be over.
“It’s a turning point between the two,” says Aliriza. “There’s trouble in paradise between the two guys.”