When President Donald Trump indicated that he wanted to see Pastor Andrew Brunson freed from his Turkish prison, he obviously meant it. Trump recently upped the ante in the conflict over the Christian pastor, who has been detained by the Turkish government for two years.
The American president recently announced that he would apply severe tariffs against Turkey for their continued imprisonment of the pastor, who was accused of assisting the movement to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. He tweeted:
“I have just authorized a doubling of Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminum will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!”
Not surprisingly, the Turkish government has complained about Washington’s recent actions, but it is clear that this is not a battle they can win.
Turkey’s Economic Crisis
Turkish President Erdogan’s economic policies have caused a financial disaster for the country. Their central bank recently stated that they would take actions to free up cash for banks to offset the impact of Erdogan’s mistakes. The nation’s currency plummeted over the past week and recently dropped another 7%.
Turkey’s precarious economic situation provided leverage for President Trump, who announced that the U.S. would impose sanctions on two key members of Ankara’s government. Additionally, Trump doubled the tariffs on Turkey’s steel and aluminum. These two actions on the part of the Trump administration are sure to apply more pressure on Erdogan, who is struggling to convince his citizens that the country’s economy is still in good shape.
True to form, Turkey’s government pushed back against Trump. Foreign minister Mevlut Cavusolgu said, “We support diplomacy and negotiations, but it is not possible for us to accept impositions.” The Turkish government recently announced that they would take legal action against the social media accounts it believes are contributing to the continued drop in the value of the lira.
Who Is Pastor Brunson?
Pastor Andrew Brunson is a Christian missionary from North Carolina. He moved to Turkey in the mid-1990s to establish a ministry with his wife and three children. He started the Resurrection Church and served as pastor until he was arrested in October 2016.
Turkish authorities acted on allegations that he plotted to overthrow the government. Five months after his arrest, Brunson was charged with espionage and links to terrorist organizations. He was allegedly linked to the Gülen movement, which attempted a coup against President Erdogan. The pastor, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison, was one of thousands of people to be incarcerated in connection with the rebellion.
Earlier this year, President Trump stated that Brunson is a “fine gentleman and Christian leader,” and indicated that the minister was being “persecuted in Turkey for no reason.” Vice President Mike Pence echoed Trump’s sentiments, declaring that Turkey should release Brunson or “face the consequences.” The administration’s actions demonstrate that they are willing to back up their threats.
How Will This End?
It is clear that Erdogan is at a significant disadvantage in this standoff with the Trump administration. While Turkey has attempted to solidify relations with Russia in response to the United States’ actions, their efforts have not been fruitful. Aaron Stein, a Middle East expert with the Atlantic Council, told Bloomberg News that Erdogan might have overestimated his position. “The power balance is asymmetric, totally in the U.S. favor,” he said. “There are no guard rails to escalation on the U.S. side, and that’s where the Turks have completely, completely messed up in their understanding of what’s going on in the U.S.”
To simplify Stein’s words: Erdogan didn’t understand who he was dealing with in President Trump. It is unlikely that President Obama or a President Hillary Clinton would be willing to apply this much leverage to compel Turkey to release Pastor Brunson. Apparently, the Turkish president hasn’t been paying much attention to how Trump handles foreign relations — and it could cost him.
Trump has shown time and time again that he is not afraid to apply pressure when it is appropriate. The situation with Pastor Brunson is no exception. The message has been sent: Continuing to keep the American minister in captivity will cause more trouble than it’s worth. Will Erdogan bend? Only time will tell.