(Jerusalem, Israel) — Readers of this column know I have been warning for years that Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Erdogan is taking his country steadily, even aggressively, away from its long-time alliance with the West and into the arms of Russia and Iran. (for examples, see here, here, here, here, and here.)
After years of denial by the Obama administration that there was any serious problem, Washington is finally beginning to pay attention to Erdogan’s march to the dark side.
- On July 26, President Trump warned Erdogan (pronounced, “Air-do-wahn”) to immediately release American Evangelical Christian Pastor Andrew Brunson from a Turkish prison or face “large sanctions.”
- “The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!” wrote the President in a Tweet.
- At a conference on international religious freedom held in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence also spoke out publicly against Turkey.
- On July 29, Erdogan angrily rejected the White House warnings. “We will not step back when faced with sanctions,” Erdogan said. “They [the U.S.] should not forget that they will lose a sincere partner.” While the pastor has been released from prison, Brunson is still under house arrest and Turkey refuses to drop the charges against him.
- On August 2, President Trump kept his word and imposed sanctions on Turkey, targeting Turkey’s Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu because they “serve as leaders of Turkish government organizations responsible for implementing Turkey’s serious human rights abuses.”
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is actively engaged in trying to release the pastor, stating: “It’s pretty straightforward. Pastor Brunson is an innocent pastor and they need to let him a return to the United States.”
Please pray for Mr. Brunson, who:
- Is pastor of a legally-recognized church in the city of Izmir.
- Has served the Lord in Turkey since 1993.
- Has already been in prison for nearly two years (since October 2016).
- Faces a sentence of up to 35 years if convicted in Turkish courts.
“It is really hard to stay in jail and be separated from my wife and children,” Brunson saidat a recent court hearing. “The disciples of Jesus suffered in his name. Now it is my turn. I am an innocent man on all these charges. I reject them. I know why I am here. I am here to suffer in Jesus’ name.”
Please pray for U.S. officials, as well, to have the wisdom to know how best to handle Erdogan, ostensibly a NATO ally but increasingly an opponent and steadily emerging as an enemy of the West.
To that end, it is worth reading a recent Wall Street Journal editorial — “Sanctions For The Sultan” — that captures the geopolitical challenge quite well:
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become increasingly unreliable as an ally over the last decade, yet he has suffered few consequences from his NATO partners. That changed Wednesday when the Trump Administration followed through on its threat to impose sanctions on Turkey for taking an American hostage.
The U.S. Treasury announced sanctions against Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu for the “unfair and unjust detention” of American pastor Andrew Brunson. The action was taken under the Global Magnitsky Act, so Messrs. Gul and Soylu are now in a class with the likes of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov and former Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh in being subjected to potential asset freezes and travel restrictions.
Pastor Brunson led a Presbyterian congregation in Izmir for more than two decades. He was jailed on trumped-up terrorism charges after a failed 2016 military coup. Turkey’s modern sultan may see Mr. Brunson as leverage to get the U.S. to extradite a Pennsylvania-based imam who Mr. Erdogan believes masterminded the coup. The Turks also hold NASA scientist and Turkish-American citizen Serkan Golge, who was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in February for alleged terrorist ties.
Mr. Trump has tried private diplomacy with Mr. Erdogan, and last month he threatened sanctions if Mr. Brunson wasn’t released. A Turkish court released him to house arrest, but he continues to face charges. Mr. Trump had no choice but to impose the sanctions once he had threatened them.
All of this marks a new low in U.S.-Turkey relations, and the potential for additional U.S. sanctions if there’s no solution won’t help Mr. Erdogan as he tries to stabilize a falling currency and stop capital flight. The lira has lost almost 25% of its value this year and hit another low Wednesday.
If Mr. Erdogan thought the U.S. President didn’t mean what he tweeted, he now knows better. A more serious breach would damage U.S. interests in the region, but failing to respond to hostage-taking would damage them too.