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Pence Renews Threat of Sanctions Against Turkey Over Pastor Brunson

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Monday renewed threat of sanctions against Turkey over Pastor Andrew Brunson‘s house arrest, in what appears to be an escalating dispute that involves mutual accusations and war of words between leaders.

A day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would not back down in the face of sanctions by the U.S., Vice President Pence underscored that the U.S. would press ahead with sanctions on Ankara until Pastor Brunson is released.

Last week, the U.S. pastor, who remained behind bars 19 months over charges of espionage and helping terrorist organizations, was placed under house arrest. The move was far from satisfying the U.S. expectation for his release.

The court ruling sparked a bitter diplomatic controversy, igniting an unusual exchange of barbs between President Donald J. Trump and the Turkish leadership.

In a threatening language never used before, Trump said the U.S. will impose large sanctions against Turkey for the detention of Brunson. But his threats did not budge Turkey to sway its position. Rather it elicited a swift rebuke from Erdogan.

“We will not take a step back when faced with sanctions. They should not forget that they will lose a sincere partner,” Erdogan said during his visit to South Africa on Sunday.

His defiant tone and the subsequent U.S. remarks reveal a display of resolve on both sides, with no party willing to concede a ground to its opponent on the escalating dispute.

Vice President Pence repeated the U.S. position on significantly mulling swift sanctions against Turkey.

In an appeal on Monday, Brunson’s lawyer sought to removal of the house arrest and travel ban for the pastor.

The case of Brunson has remained a source of diplomatic friction between two NATO allies. Turkish prosecutors charge the Evangelical pastor from North Carolina with conducting espionage on behalf of foreign countries, abetting and aiding outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and membership to Gulen Movement, a faith-based Muslim organization.

He faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted. Both Pastor Brunson, who has lived in Izmir for more than two decades, and the U.S. authorities appear befuddled by the nature of charges. They unequivocally reject accusations they find to be politically motivated.

The issue is hardly the only point of discord between the two countries as relations repeatedly devolve into diplomatic spats over a number of unresolved thorny matters. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, the demand for the extradition of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, and imprisonment of a number of U.S. citizens strain the bilateral ties, sometimes to a significant point.

But because of the Brunson case, for the first time, Trump employed such a threatening language against Turkey. His sanction threat came despite his cordial relationship with Erdogan.

“It seems as though the Turkish side is perplexed as to why Trump chose to tweet such a strong threat on July 27,” said Gallia Lindenstrauss, a visiting scholar at Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC).

“From the Turkish perspective,” she noted, “it looked as if the quiet negotiations were proceeding with the Secretary of State, and that the case of Andrew Brunson was one of several major issues that were causing tension in the bilateral relationship and were discussed,” she told Globe Post Turkey.

She reminded that Trump had also tweeted back in April. Then Trump dismissed espionage charges by Turkish prosecutors against the pastor. “They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is…” Trump then tweeted.

Clearly, Lindenstrauss said, the case of Brunson was causing much ire among the evangelist supporters of the Republican Party.

According to her, the two leaders have a strong personality, which on the one hand makes them seem to respect each other but on the other hand, makes it much harder for them to back down from their threatening language. 

“The change of attitude is Trump’s problem, not mine,” Erdogan told journalists in South Africa. When the Turkish court in Izmir refused to release Brunson two weeks ago, Trump called the verdict a total disgrace and urged his Turkish counterpart to do something for the release of the pastor.

Both leaders enjoyed each other’s company during a NATO summit in Brussels. Trump’s remarks last week marked a change of mood regarding their close personal relationship.

“This could become a major test of wills between the two presidents. If the reports of the deal the two leaders struck in Brussels (the release of Pastor Brunson in exchange for U.S. intervention with Israel to secure the release of Ebru Ozkan) are accurate, then President Trump and others in his administration seem justified in their position that the United States fulfilled its part of the bargain,” said Stephen J. Flanagan, a senior political scientist with RAND Corporation.

What he referred to was a report by the Washington Post that suggested a deal for a prisoner swap involving the release of Brunson in exchange of freeing a Turkish woman by the Israeli authorities.  

“We don’t know what President Erdogan committed to do on Brunson or what else he asked for in return for his release, but Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo made clear moving him from prison to house arrest was “not enough,” Flanagan told Globe Post Turkey.

When the Turkish side, according to a Trump administration official quoted by the Post, “upped the ante,” that led to Trump’s threat of sanctions and Pence’s sharp criticism of Turkey.

The return of Pastor Brunson to the U.S., Flanagan emphasized, is an important issue for evangelical Christians, who form a key part of Trump’s political base.  Erdogan, he noted, clearly chafes at being dictated to, and the Trump administration has not left him much freedom of maneuvering.

Where would this dispute evolve? Given that neither Erdogan nor the U.S. leadership shows signs of backing down, the situation would relapse into an uncharted territory.

“If Erdogan is feeling emboldened after his recent reelection and playing for larger stakes — to try to leverage the holding of Brunson to secure the extradition of Fethullah Gulen — he’ll find such hostage diplomacy won’t work with Washington,” Flanagan argued. 

He said that the Turkish government has already alienated the majority in Congress, including many of its longtime friends there, with its policies toward Israel, crackdown on civil liberties, and decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system, which has led to legislation to suspend the transfer of more than 100 F-35 fighter jets. 

The Trump administration, he noted, has shown that it is committed to finding ways to work effectively with Turkey on finishing the fight against ISIS and stabilizing Syria, as well as on other mutual security interests — but there are limits. 

According to him, Turkish leaders know their country still needs U.S. security guarantees and military equipment to ensure its defenses in a hostile region, and it may soon need help with its economic turmoil. 

“So I think Erdogan would be wise to release Pastor Brunson – and the three foreign service national employees also being detained – and Washington should help him find a face-saving way out of this standoff before it does real damage to what remains a mutually-beneficial relationship,” he said in a conclusion. 

Whether the Turkish president would heed similar advise and counsel, it remains to be seen. But latest signs do not seem promising.

Turkey’s Erdogan Refuses to Back Down After Trump’s Sanction Threats

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