U.S. President Donald Trump has accused Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of using American prisoners as hostages and negotiating for their release, but Nicholas Danforth, a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Centre, said the Turkish leader may well be sincere in believing they and other jailed Westerners are plotting against him.
The United States sanctioned two Turkish ministers and doubled tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminium this month over Turkey’s ongoing detention of American evangelist pastor Andrew Brunson and other U.S. citizens. It is the biggest diplomatic rift between the two countries since Turkey joined NATO more than 60 years ago.
Trump accused Erdoğan of seeking to use the arrests as bargaining chips for the return of U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen and other issues.
“Erdoğan is likely sincere in believing that many of the foreigners jailed in Turkey are guilty of trying to sabotage his or Turkey’s interests on behalf of their governments,” said Danforth. “Arresting and holding these individuals, then, serves as a message to foreign governments that Turkey will stand up to their conspiratorial campaigns. Their release, by extension, becomes leverage that Ankara can use to pressure the West into abandoning or easing its posture of hostility against Erdoğan and Turkey,” he said.
“The result of this approach, to date, has been self-fulfilling. In taking and holding prisoners to combat the West’s presumed hostility, Ankara ends up creating the kind of hostility it imagines. This further justifies Ankara’s original assumption while undermining Turkey’s ability to develop a more functional and effective form of transactional relationship with the West.”
In the case of Brunson, a U.S. missionary who has been under arrest for almost two years, Erdoğan has not reacted like a rational actor trying to maximise a hostage bounty, Danforth pointed out.
Instead, the United States’ apparent willingness to sacrifice its relationship with Turkey for the sake of a single man has convinced Erdoğan-supporting media at least that Brunson must be an extremely important secret agent.
“Viewed through the lens of Erdoğan’s ideological assumptions, Ankara’s approach to these negotiations takes on a different logic. If you believe that Washington is waging economic war on Turkey in pursuit of a broader geopolitical agenda, rather than simply in order to compel the return of Andrew Brunson, then releasing him before the White House calls off the war makes little sense,” Danforth said.
“The problem for Washington, and by extension Turkey, is that so long as Erdoğan assumes Western hostility and seeks to counter it through provocative measures, there are few good options to respond. Conciliatory gestures are more likely to convince Ankara that its pressure worked than lead it to conclude that its initial assumptions were false. But of course if Washington continues to intensify its own economic pressure – whether Brunson is ultimately released or not – Ankara’s assumption of Western hostility will once again be confirmed.”