Capping an accumulation of mutual grievances, US sanctions on Turkey over its refusal to release an American evangelical pastor suspected of involvement in the July 2016 coup attempt are accelerating the deterioration of Turkey’s economy and threatening bilateral security cooperation and NATO cohesion.
Relations between Turkey and the United States – two NATO allies and security partners in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria – are going through a major crisis. Just days after US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were seen at the NATO Summit in Brussels, Trump unexpectedly imposed sanctions on Turkey’s interior and justice ministers. He is demanding that Turkish authorities release Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor who spent over two years in a Turkish jail and is now under house arrest. Brunson is accused of cooperating with what the Turkish government calls the ‘Gulenist Terror Organisation’, which is associated with exiled Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen and which Turks widely believe to have been behind the failed military coup in July 2016.
Erdogan refused to bend to US pressure, prompting another wave of US economic sanctions. On 10 August, the US doubled the tariffs on aluminium and steel imports from Turkey, prompting Ankara to sharply hike tariffs on several US products. While the US continues to threaten new economic measures, Erdogan has intensified the anti-American campaign in Turkey, accusing the West of waging an ‘economic war’. Public anger has resulted in shooting outside the US embassy in Ankara. With both leaders digging in their heels and refusing to back down, this crisis is likely to impair transatlantic security and the United States’ conflict-management efforts in Syria and beyond.
While the speed with which relations have deteriorated into a full-blown political confrontation has been startling, the downward trajectory of US–Turkey relations began many years ago. Both countries harbour serious grievances that need to be addressed before warm bilateral relations can be restored. This strategic discord is in part the result of diverging domestic trends, as Turkey under Erdogan has moved towards more authoritarian and Islamist rule. Yet it is somewhat ironic that the crisis has reached a head during the administration of a US president who generally appears more accommodating to autocratic strongmen.