Erdogan sanctions US officials in tit-for-tat row over pastor

Speaking during a meeting of his ruling AK Party in Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on August 4, 2018 that Turkey would impose sanctions on two US officials in retaliation for a similar move by Washington in a row over the detention of an American pastor. (Turkish Presidential Press Service via AFP)
Updated 04 August 2018

Erdogan sanctions US officials in tit-for-tat row over pastor

  • Turkey has been holding pastor Andrew Brunson on terror-related charges for almost two years
  • The Turkish lira, which has plunged in value this year, has already reached the five to the dollar mark for the first time in history over the sanctions

ANKARA:  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday said Turkey would impose sanctions on two US officials as retaliation for a similar move by Washington, hitting back in an unprecedented row between the NATO allies.

Turkey’s holding of pastor Andrew Brunson on terror-related charges for almost two years has sparked one of the most intense crises between Washington and Ankara since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

But in his first comments on the dispute since Washington imposed the sanctions on Wednesday, Erdogan also appeared keen to ward off any further escalation by saying that neither side had an interest in a “lose-lose” scenario.

"Today, I will give our friends instructions to freeze the assets in Turkey of the American justice and interior ministers, if they have any (such assets),” Erdogan said in a televised speech.

He did not specify to which members of the US administration he was referring.

The US attorney general is Jeff Sessions and while the US does not have an interior ministry similar to Turkey, the Secretary of the Interior is Ryan Zinke and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security is Kirstjen Nielsen.

Erdogan’s announcement was a response to Washington’s decision to impose sanctions on Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul over Brunson’s detention.

The sanctions freeze any property or assets on US soil held by the two ministers, and bar US citizens from doing business with them.

Turkish ministers have denied having any assets in the US and it is highly unlikely the American officials would have assets in Turkey. But analysts say the sanctions are still of critical importance.

“Although it is unlikely the sanctions will have much practical effect in either case, it is significant and unprecedented that two NATO allies have sanctioned members of each other’s government,” Amanda Sloat, a former State Department official and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told AFP.

The Turkish lira, which has plunged in value this year, has already reached the five to the dollar mark for the first time in history over the sanctions.

“There is a risk of more sanctions to come... which could hit more directly at the heart of Turkish government interests and which have the potential to cause a run on the lira,” Anthony Skinner, director of the Middle East and North Africa at risk management consultants Verisk Maplecroft, told AFP.

He said the “Achilles’ heel” of Turkey’s fragile economy was its exposure to foreign portfolio investments and credit.

And Erdogan appeared to indicate that he did not want the crisis to escalate further to full-scale economic sanctions.

“We don’t want to be a party to lose-lose games. Moving political and judicial disputes into an economic dimension will be harmful to both sides,” Erdogan said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who discussed the issue with Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday, said he was “hopeful” of progress in the “days and weeks to come.”

Erdogan said diplomatic channels were working “very intensely” and added he thought “a significant part of the issues of discord can soon be left behind.”

Brunson was moved to house arrest last week following nearly two years in jail on terror-related charges but the change only increased tensions.

President Donald Trump and his Vice President Mike Pence, who shares Brunson’s evangelical Christian faith, have made his release and return back to his family in the US a priority. The US Treasury implemented the sanctions against the Turkish ministers under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow jail, and which allows the US to sanction foreign officials implicated in rights abuses.

The dispute is just one of a long list of problems in relations between Ankara and Washington, including Turkey’s ties with Russia and the failure of the US to extradite the alleged mastermind of the 2016 failed coup Fethullah Gulen.

Two Turkish employees of US consulates in Turkey are also currently in jail on terror charges and another is under house arrest.

“Given the high economic stakes for Turkey, some kind of agreement is more likely than not,” said Skinner. “Erdogan has an unrivaled track record of playing with fire, but he too knows when he has tracked too far across the coals.”

Sloat argued “quiet diplomatic negotiations” were the best solution since “Trump will not back down until Brunson is home, while Erdogan does not want to look like he capitulated to the Americans.”

US, European allies clash on militants’ fate in Daesh talks

Updated 47 min 52 sec ago

US, European allies clash on militants’ fate in Daesh talks

  • Senior officials from more than 30 countries pledged greater coordination in the campaign against Daesh

WASHINGTON: The US and its European allies clashed on Thursday over what to do with thousands of militants jailed in Syria, with Washington calling a French proposal to try fighters in Iraq “irresponsible.”

Senior officials from more than 30 countries pledged greater coordination in the campaign against Daesh in a meeting in Washington proposed by France, which has been particularly concerned by President Donald Trump’s decision last month to pull US troops from Syria.

Trump’s move allowed an incursion by Turkey aimed at destroying Kurdish guerrillas, who had led the fight against Daesh and run jails for captured extremists in their effectively autonomous area in northern Syria.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed the Europeans on foreign fighters, telling them, “we’ll hold them to account.”

“Coalition members must take back the thousands of foreign terrorist fighters in custody and impose accountability for the atrocities they have perpetrated,” Pompeo said.

But Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, acknowledged that “there is, candidly, a difference of opinion about the best way to resolve this problem.”

“The United States thinks that it’s inappropriate to ask Iraq in particular to shoulder the additional burden of foreign fighters, particularly from Europe,” Sales told reporters after the one-day meeting.

“It would be irresponsible for any country to expect Iraq to solve that problem for them,” he said.

“We think there should be a sense of urgency to repatriate now while we still can,” he said.

Sales’s comments clearly were directed at France, which has opened talks with Iraq about trying foreign nationals.

European nations such as France and Britain have no desire to see the return of battle-hardened supporters of the ultra-violent group, which has claimed responsibility for a slew of grisly attacks against civilians.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said his government was seeking the “certain and lasting detention” of fighters and noted that the vast majority of prisoners were Iraqis and Syrians.

“For our part, we will continue to say that they should be tried as close as possible to the crimes they committed,” he told reporters.

“Let’s never forget that these women and men who joined Daesh made a fully conscious choice to fight for a terrorist organization,” he said, using the group’s Arabic initials.

European governments have revoked the citizenship of a number of citizens over alleged Daesh links.

Such a step is virtually impossible in the US, although a court Thursday backed the State Department’s finding that one US-born recruit, Hoda Muthana, did not have US citizenship as her father was a diplomat from Yemen.

Trump argues that the US accomplished its military mission in war-ravaged Syria by crushing Daesh, although he has since said that US troops will stay on to secure oil fields.

Pompeo dwelled little on Trump’s decision but said US forces remained positioned to make sure Daesh “will never get a second wind,” using a common acronym for the group.

The United States will continue to lead the coalition and the world on this essential security effort,” Pompeo said.

He scoffed at criticism of Trump’s move, pointing to the October 26 raid by US forces that killed the group’s chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as well as an operation that killed his would-be successor.

“Ask them if there’s a deficit of American leadership in fighting” Daesh, Pompeo said.

The talks came a day after Trump welcomed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House, a rapid turnaround in symbolism just weeks after Trump threatened to destroy the NATO ally’s economy over its incursion.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking alongside Pompeo, acknowledged that there were “differences” among alliance members on Syria, where the situation he said “remains fragile and difficult.”

But Le Drian said France felt reassured by a joint statement’s reaffirmation of a coalition, saying that all members agreed “to avoid unilateral steps without consulting with others.”

The ministers also said they would hold a meeting next year focused on Daesh in West Africa, where the extremists have staged increasingly destructive attacks.