Monday,18 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)
Monday,18 February, 2019
Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Bluster and Brunson

Slapped with US sanctions against his inner circle, Turkey’s Erdogan responded with bombast, only to reverse his rhetoric within days, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Brunson moved from prison to house arrest in Turkey
Brunson moved from prison to house arrest in Turkey

The occupant of the White Palace in Ankara stamped his feet and the rumble echoed through all corners of the Turkish media, escalating into a thunder of war drums against the White House in retaliation for its “aggression”. Even the opposition press rallied behind the “chief” and added its albeit feeble voice to the outcry against the US sanctions levied on Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ministers of interior and justice.

Naturally, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials once again expressed their anger at the US’ suspicious silence following the failed coup attempt in mid-July 2016 and at Washington’s virtual complicity with Fethullah Gulen, the “terrorist” Islamic preacher in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan has identified as the mastermind behind that plot. They also declared their full backing of the “independent” Turkish judiciary which had not even been remotely influenced by the palace when it brought charges of “conspiring with terrorist organisations” against the Christian preacher Pastor Andrew Brunson arrested nearly two years ago. In the AKP lexicon, “terrorist organisation” stands for Gulen’s Hizmet Movement, now dubbed the “Fethullah Terrorist Organisation” (FETO for short), and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Uncharacteristically, Erdogan has been relatively reserved in his practical reactions, if not in his rhetorical ones. Many in Anatolia had expected him to boot the Americans out of  Incirlik Airbase, that strategic cornerstone in the fight against terrorism (Islamic State in Syria). An exception is Anthony Skinner, director of Middle East and North Africa at risk management consultants Verisk Maplecroft, who told AFP: “Erdogan has an unrivalled track-record of playing with fire, but he too knows when he has tracked too far across the coals.”

Erdogan may also understand that, as Amanda Sloat, a former State Department official and now senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, put it: “Trump will not back down until Brunson is home.”

Nevertheless, she cautioned against escalation, which would only hamper efforts to resolve the crisis.

Efforts of this sort continued in Singapore where US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on the fringes of the ASEAN conference. “I made it clear that it is well past time that Pastor Brunson be freed, be permitted to return to the United States, and the others being held by Turkey also,” Pompeo said the following day.

Of course, Erdogan had to take some action in response to the sanctioning of Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul. So, he penned off a decree to freeze the assets in Turkey of their US counterparts. This, however, elicited some confusion as well as some ill-intentioned snickers from certain opposition quarters. The US does not have a Ministry of Interior like Turkey. So, they asked, who exactly did Erdogan finger? Secretary of the Interior  Ryan Zinke, or Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen?

Initially, it appeared that Washington’s sanctions would have negligible impact and that Erdogan could continue to play his defiant, anti-imperialist act and reap the political payback at home. But it appears that some among the Turkish leader’s small circle of intimates advised him that a tit-for-tat war with the US would not work in his favour, that there is a big gap between the US economy and the heavily dollarised Turkish economy. So, he shifted tack. Returning to an old theme, he proclaimed: “Our weapon lies beneath our pillows!” That was the directive for all honest and self-sacrificing Turks to reach into the hiding places where they secrete their dollars and euros, and change those currencies into Turkish liras.

“Show your support for the local currency and demonstrate your resistance to the world,” Erdogan cried. He took the opportunity to call for closer economic cooperation between emergent economies and hurl a curse against the “gang” that is pressuring Turkey to raise its interest rates in order to “bring Turkey to its knees”.

On Saturday, soon after the lira hit a record low, topping $5.11 to the dollar, Erdogan said, “Our patience has worn thin.” Everyone held their breath for a powerful and impetuous action Sunday. But again, his advisors, their eyes on the plummeting national currency, urged caution to prevail. Evidently, he listened. “We don’t want to be a party to lose-lose games. Moving political and judicial disputes into an economic dimension will be harmful for both sides,” Erdogan said.

He took his unfamiliar conciliatory approach further: “A large portion of the outstanding differences between the two allied nations will be resolved soon. I have great hope that this will be accomplished in the coming days.”

Could it be that he deliberately echoed Pompeo’s remarks two days earlier? After Washington sanctioned the two Turkish officials, Pompeo said that he was “hopeful that in the coming days that we will see [the release of Brunson] occur”.

Whether or not Erdogan’s choice of wording was deliberate, it appears that the US pastor’s release from house arrest is immanent. The same applies to the two Turkish employees at the US consulate whom Ankara has also jailed on terrorist-related charges.

Nevertheless, the question remains as to what, if anything, Turkey will get in exchange, to save face.

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