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[OPINION] Has Erdoğan out-trumped Trump?

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Turkish Minute staff

What started out as a “bromance” between two world leaders has recently turned into an aggressive game of one-upmanship, with the autocratic president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, defying the bluster and threats of US President Donald Trump at every turn.

From the very beginning, after winning the election in November 2016, Trump had an affinity for Erdoğan and was eager to build a relationship with Turkey’s strongman, going so far as to congratulate him on a narrow “victory” in a 2017 referendum that bestowed sweeping powers on Erdoğan, despite his wide-scale, relentless purge and jailing of perceived opponents, rampant human rights violations and suppression of the free press in the country.

Everything was going swimmingly until April of this year, when Trump belatedly turned his focus to the plight of an American evangelical pastor who had been detained by Turkish authorities in October 2016, held in pretrial detention for 18 months and was standing trial on bogus espionage and terrorism-related charges. Vice President Mike Pence, also an evangelical Christian, had taken up Andrew Brunson’s cause, the US State Department had been urging Turkey for his release and several members of the US Congress were proposing legislation that would punish Turkey until the cleric was freed and returned to the US.

On April 17, Trump tweeted: “Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason. They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”

Despite the diplomatic and legislative maneuvering, the local court in Izmir hearing Brunson’s trial had ruled to keep him in jail and oversaw proceedings that were based on flimsy “evidence” and the questionable testimony of “secret witnesses.”

In July, however, Trump and Erdoğan met on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels during which an agreement between the two fist-bumping presidents was apparently reached: Trump would get a Turkish citizen indicted in Israel on charges of aiding a terrorist group sent back to Turkey, and Erdoğan would in return release pastor Brunson. The woman was deported to Turkey on July 15, a day after Trump made a personal request of Israel’s prime minister, but Brunson was not released and was in fact ordered on July 18 to remain in pretrial detention. “A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long. @RT_Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!” Trump tweeted on July 18.

Little more than a week later, on July 27, the local Turkish court reversed itself and ordered that Brunson be moved to house arrest.

Feeling betrayed that Erdoğan had reneged on what he perceived to be their deal and after a rancorous phone call with the Turkish president, Trump on July 26 tweeted: “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!” sparking Erdoğan to retort: “We have never made Pastor Brunson a subject of bargaining. You cannot force Turkey to retreat with sanctions.”

On August 1, the US Treasury announced sanctions on Turkey’s Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gül and Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu, “both of whom played leading roles in the organizations responsible for the arrest and detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu responded on Twitter, saying, “The effort by the US to impose sanctions on our two ministers will not go unanswered,” while the foreign ministry threatened “a reciprocal response.”

Only days later, on August 4, Turkey announced it was freezing the assets of two US cabinet secretaries. “Those who think they can make Turkey take a step back by resorting to threatening language and absurd sanctions show that they do not know the Turkish nation,” Erdoğan said.

Trump on Aug. 10 announced a doubling of tariffs on Turkish imports of aluminum and steel, to 20 and 50 percent, respectively, tweeting that “Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!”

In retaliation, Turkey doubled tariffs on $1.8 billion of US imports including alcohol, cars and tobacco as well as cosmetics, rice and coal. Erdoğan also called for a boycott of American-made electronics.

Turks turned out in record numbers smashing iPhones and burning US dollar bills.

“You cannot bring [the Turkish] people to their knees by using threatening language,” Erdoğan said at a weekend rally in Ordu. Addressing the US administration, he added: “It’s a shame. You prefer a pastor to a strategic ally of yours in NATO.”

The following day, August 12, Erdoğan announced: “I am declaring here and now: We have seen your game, and we challenge you,” after the plunge of the Turkish lira in reaction to the US sanctions.

On August 13 White House National Security Adviser John Bolton met privately with Turkish Ambassador Serdar Kılıç about Brunson’s case. Bolton warned him that the United States would not give any ground and that the US had nothing further to negotiate until Brunson was freed, officials said.

The White House said on August 16 that US tariffs on aluminum and steel imports from Turkey were “specific to national security” and would remain in place even if Brunson were to be freed as demanded by the Trump administration.

“Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years. They are now holding our wonderful Christian Pastor, who I must now ask to represent our Country as a great patriot hostage. We will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man, but we are cutting back on Turkey!” Trump tweeted late in the afternoon of August 16.

He was apparently referring to Turkey upping the ante for the release of Brunson far beyond the deportation from Israel of the Turkish citizen and demanding the US drop an ongoing investigation into a state-owned Turkish bank for complicity in a scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran and the possible levying of substantial fines on the bank, something the US refused to consider until the pastor was freed.

Despite Trump’s strongman bluster, brash tweets and attempts to wreak further havoc on Turkey’s already faltering economy and national currency, which has been in free fall and lost almost 50 percent of its value since the beginning of the year, pastor Andrew Brunson remains detained in Turkey, with two higher courts recently rejecting appeals by his lawyer to release him from house arrest and remove a travel ban imposed by him on the trial judge.

Qatar recently announced it would invest $15 billion in the Turkish financial sector to help the country ride out its currency crisis, and Erdoğan has attempted to mend ties with European capitals, which want to see financial stability in Turkey. He remains adamant that the US will not bring Turkey to its knees, and the partnership between the two NATO allies appears to be falling apart. He has managed to convince the Turkish public that Trump’s “economic attack” on Turkey is responsible for the deteriorating state of the Turkish economy instead of the poor management by him and his cronies. Turkey also hosts US-led forces in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria at its İncirlik Airbase, the loss of use of which would deal a severe blow to the air operations over Syria.

Trump has played all his cards but has still not achieved the release of the pastor and seemed to be admitting defeat in his August 16 tweet when he said he “now” must ask Brunson to “represent” the US as a “great patriot hostage.”

Proving to be a far more cunning and experienced politician than Trump, Erdoğan now appears to be holding all the cards.

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