U.S. Hits Turkey With Sanctions Over Jailed Pastor

The measure will further sour ties between two NATO allies.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels on July 11. (Tatyana Zenkovich/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels on July 11. (Tatyana Zenkovich/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration announced sanctions on top Turkish government officials after Ankara refused to release an American pastor from custody, making good on a week of threats to hold the country accountable for what Washington sees as the unjust imprisonment of a U.S. citizen.

The decision put financial and economic pressure on a nominal NATO ally, sending the Turkish lira to an all-time low and the Turkish stock market reeling. It also highlighted the deterioration in relations between the two allies.

The U.S. Treasury Department said Wednesday it had designated Turkey’s justice minister, Abdulhamit Gul, and interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, for their role in pastor Andrew Brunson’s “unfair and unjust detention.” The designation means any U.S. financial assets are blocked, and the two men could have only limited access to the U.S. financial system.

The evangelical pastor has been held by Turkish authorities on charges of aiding a terrorist organization since October 2016, months after a failed coup attempt.

The U.S. sanctions were imposed under the auspices of the Magnitsky Act, originally a tool to punish Russian officials for serious human rights abuses but which is now being applied to human rights abusers worldwide.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a plane to southeast Asia, phoned Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday to push the Turkish government to release Brunson, other U.S. citizens, and U.S. Embassy locally employed staff jailed in Turkey. U.S. President Donald Trump has had several conversations about the matter with his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“President Trump concluded that these sanctions are the appropriate action,” Pompeo said in a statement. Pompeo plans to meet Cavusoglu at a summit in Singapore this weekend.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the United States. has grown tired of waiting for Turkish action on the matter. “This has gone on far too long,” she said.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said in response to the sanctions that the United States was trying to interfere in the Turkish judicial process. The decision “will seriously damage the constructive efforts made in order to resolve problems between the two countries,” the ministry said in a statement. “An equivalent response to this aggressive attitude will be given without delay.”

Imposing sanctions on senior government officials of an allied country is a major escalation and a reflection of just how dire relations between Washington and Ankara have grown in the two years since the coup attempt in Turkey.

“It’s quite unprecedented, the U.S. sanctioning ministers of a NATO ally,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkish parliament and now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.

“It was surprising even for those of us who follow bilateral relations closely.”

Turkey blames the 2016 coup attempt on Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric now living in the United States, and has long suspected that Washington had a hand in it–allegations the United States fiercely denies. The two countries have also been at odds over the war in Syria, what role Kurdish fighters should have there, and how much to economically contain Iran.

Erdemir said the sanctions underscore how much Erdogan misplayed his hand.

He said Erdogan overestimated the significance of his personal relationship with Trump, given growing impatience with Turkey in Congress, the State Department, and Pentagon. “Erdogan has consistently misread Turkey’s NATO allies, but more importantly he has misread President Trump.”

Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former senior State Department official, said while the administration has engaged with Turkey diplomatically to address irritants in the relationship, Congress has taken a harder line and played “bad cop.” But now the Trump administration is taking a harder line, too.

“The biggest takeaway of all of this … is we’re finally seeing frustrations with Turkey coalesce across the U.S. government,” she said. 

Other analysts said the sanctions on Turkish government officials would likely harden Turkey’s position on other key issues. Turkish officials had already threatened to retaliate if Washington went ahead with sanctions.

“That things have escalated to sanctions is a sign of very difficult bilateral relations, and I doubt it will make solutions easier as Turkish officials may need to show a harder line for domestic reasons,” said Rachel Ziemba of the Center for a New American Security.

Though the sanctions designations on the two ministers were largely symbolic—and a far cry from broader sanctions on the financial sector the United States could deploy—they still sent the Turkish lira to a record low. Investors are nervous about Turkey’s fragile economy, and threats of even greater U.S. economic pressure are making them more skittish.

“Clearly the goal is to send a message to those involved, and as with most sanctions, to increase the perception of a risk premium on Turkey,” Ziemba said. She noted that the announcement coincided with news that the U.S. Federal Reserve plans to tighten monetary policy, which hurts emerging markets like Turkey.

More broadly, the long-simmering tensions between Turkey and Washington could infect other regional crises, such as the war in Syria, U.S. efforts to curtail Russian influence in the Middle East, and American insistence on choking off Iran’s economic lifeline.

On all those issues, Turkey has worked at cross purposes with the United States in recent years and is only more likely to become an irritant more than an ally after the sanctions escalation.

“This will make bilateral matters even more difficult, but this is not a crisis that erupted with the designations today,” said Erdemir, the former Turkish MP. “This was already a full-blown crisis.”

Update, Aug. 1, 2018: This article was updated to clarify comments from Amanda Sloat on U.S.-Turkey relations.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer