ISTANBUL, TURKEY - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is vowing not to back down to Washington's demand to release American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is on trial on terrorism charges. U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday, threatened "severe sanctions" if Brunson was not released.
"We will not take a step back when faced with sanctions, "Turkish state broadcaster TRT on Sunday quoted Erdogan, "They should not forget that they will lose a sincere partner."
The Turkish President is currently on a tour of African countries.
Erdogan's comment coincides with an escalation of anti-U.S. rhetoric. Five pro-government newspapers Sunday all carried the same headline, "We are not tied from our stomachs (by an umbilical cord) to the U.S."
"Turkey, won't take a knee before anybody," said Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu.
Ankara insists Brunson's detention and trial is a matter for the courts. The American pastor is on trial on charges of supporting conspirators behind the 2016 failed coup attempt and being linked to Kurdish insurgents. Earlier this month a court released Brunson and put him under house arrest after being jailed for nearly two years. However, Washington is demanding the pastor's immediate release, describing the charges as "baseless."
The deepening diplomatic dispute between the two NATO allies comes as relations are already straining over a myriad of differences. However, observers say Erdogan's resolute stance against Washington pressure could be a sign of Ankara's diplomatic weakness.
"Pastor Brunson himself is not important, but he became an important political asset," said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen who served in Washington. "Maybe with the exception of cooperation with the U.S. in Syria, that [the release of Brunson] is all Turkey can offer to the U.S. However, there are so many files so to speak waiting to be solved and the single asset Ankara has, is Brunson."
Ankara is pressing Washington for the extradition of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed for 2016 failed coup attempt. Gulen denies any role in the coup. Turkey is also lobbying to minimize an expected multi-billion dollar fine by the U.S. Treasury against the Turkish State-owned Halkbank for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Neither Erdogan nor his ministers have so far directly criticized President Trump over the Brunson case. "Turkey saw Trump as a savior," political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners said. "Trump has a kinship empathy with strong macho leaders, so he got along with Erdogan despite several policy differences."
Analysts suggest Erdogan is likely to see his best chance of resolving Brunson case through direct talks with Trump. "You have to open the way for more talks, shouting each other is not the way, both sides have to get to their senses and not play to their own crowds," former Turkish diplomat Selcen said. "But unfortunately both [Trump and Erdogan] are facing elections in the coming months, I don't know how that will play out."
The United States in November has Congressional elections, and the release of Brunson is important for evangelical Christians, a vital part of Trump's Republican Party voting base. Erdogan is already eyeing March municipal elections for Turkey's main cities and will be reluctant to bow to Washington's threats.
The escalating dispute over Brunson is threatening to exacerbate other disputes between the two NATO allies. Ankara's deepening ties with Moscow including the purchase of Russia's S 400 missile system has caused alarm in Washington, raising questions over Turkey's commitment to its western allies. Turkish ministers have also ruled out complying with new U.S. sanctions against Iran. Differences between the two sides remain over Syria.
Analysts point out Washington had until now sought to contain the simmering tensions through dialogue. However, the threat of sanctions over Brunson could herald a change in approach towards Ankara.
"They [Ankara] are quite justifiably afraid that stepping back would lead to further concessions in the future," analyst Yesilada said.
"If [Brunson is released], that happens American pressure will double," Yesilada continued, "there is the S 400 case, there are three local U.S. consular employees in detention [in Turkey]. Of course Turkey's flirtation with Russia, the Syrian conflict and most important Turkey's defiance of Iranian sanctions. If the United States gets what it wants in the Brunson case, then similar methods will be used again."