ANKARA: Washington and Ankara are heading into increasingly turbulent waters as the NATO allies take unprecedented steps against each other.
On Wednesday, the US Treasury issued sanctions against Turkish officials, including Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, in retaliation for Turkey’s detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was held for almost for two years before recently being placed under house arrest.
The US Treasury views Brunson’s arrest as a serious human rights abuse.
Assets and properties of the two Turkish officials under US jurisdiction will be blocked and US citizens will be forbidden from engaging in financial transactions with them.
The US has prepared a list of Turkish entities and individuals to target if Ankara refuses to release the pastor. The sanctions are based on the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, which allows Washington to target individuals, companies or other entities involved in human rights abuses around the world.
On the same day, the US Senate overwhelmingly approved a defense policy bill which includes a halt to the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey until the Pentagon issues a report within three months. Ankara has been engaged in the F-35 program since 1999, while the Turkish defense industry has played an active role in the production of the aircraft.
However, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey will refuse to make any concessions on judicial independence in the face of the Trump administration’s threats.
As well as Brunson, NASA scientist Serkan Golge and three Turkish employees from the US mission in Turkey have also been detained over alleged links to terror organizations.
The US economic assaults are expected to continue with a hefty fine on state-run Turkish Halkbank for its role in evading US sanctions against Iran. The sanctions will severely damage the Turkish banking sector, according to some experts.
Following the announcement, Turkey’s lira already hit a record low of five against the dollar.
Experts believe that Ankara is likely to take counter-measures against Washington, possibly even seizing the assets of the US president and government leaders in Turkey, including Trump Tower in Istanbul.
As a second option, another attempt to contain the crisis through high-level meetings may also be on table.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to meet his Turkish counterpart shortly.
“We all know that there are serious flaws in Turkish justice system and its independence must be improved. We in Turkey work hard toward that goal and will be pleased to see constructive support in this regard,” Mehmet Ogutcu, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Bosphorus Energy Club, told Arab News.
However, for Ogutcu, such an intervention from the US side is counterproductive and will harden Turkey’s resolve to guard its sovereign rights and national pride.
“Turkey, a powerful NATO ally, an OECD member and EU partner, cannot be treated like North Korea, Iran or Russia. The relations will benefit from a comprehensive overhaul of diplomatic, security and economic ties, as well as positive engagement rather than such treats and sanctions,” he said.
Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that the detention of the pastor is merely one symptom of a deepening rift.
“If the Brunson case was an isolated one it would be significant, but given historic distrust between Washington and Ankara it is magnified tenfold,” he said.
“There is a strong belief across the political spectrum in Washington, not only in the Trump administration, that Brunson is being unfairly used as a pawn to achieve certain objectives of Erdogan.”
According to Katz, this feeds into a widely accepted narrative in Washington and the West that Turkey under Erdogan leadership has drifted toward authoritarianism, away from the West and NATO, and discarded democracy, human rights and rule of law.
“The longer the Brunson situation remains unresolved the more likely that US-Turkish relations will remain strained and further deteriorate. It will also make it more difficult to collectively address other challenges in the bilateral relationship, including policy toward Syria, Turkey’s relations with Russia and its purchase of S-400 missile system,” he said.
Experts also caution about a potential tit-for-tat response on sanctions between the two countries, which would further strain relations.
“Ankara could immediately deescalate this situation, including reversing US application of sanctions, by releasing Brunson and canceling its purchase of the Russian S-400 system,” Katz said.
A more comprehensive strategy was needed to rebuild trust and break the current impasse, he said.