US positioned to impose new sanctions on Turkey as talks on Brunson fail

The US failed to secure assurances on Wednesday from Turkey to immediately free an American pastor, US officials said, deepening a crisis between the two countries and setting the stage for the Trump administration to take new punitive steps.

According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, during high-level talks in Washington US and Turkish officials were unable to produce a breakthrough in an impasse that has pushed Turkey’s economy into turmoil, officials said.

The Turkish lira hit a record low on Thursday, plunging to TL 5,43 to the US dollar.

A Turkish delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal arrived in Washington for key meetings to resolve the current crisis in relations after the US imposed sanctions on Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson.

A nine-person delegation met with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on Wednesday in a bid to ease tensions between the countries. “We held additional talks with Turkish officials. The conversations continue,” Reuters quoted US State Department Spokersperson Heather Nauert as saying after the talks.

The delegation, consisting of officials from Turkey’s foreign, justice and finance ministries, did not make a statement as talks closed, and the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency reported that it would go on to meet department officials.

These will include US Treasury officials, a Treasury spokesperson said on Wednesday. The delegation “is looking for any deal because they’ve got to have something to go back to Ankara with,” a former US official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The United States, however, is unlikely to agree to any deal unless Turkey agrees to release American pastor Brunson, whose arrest sparked the diplomatic row, the US official said.

Nationalist newspaper Sözcü, citing anonymous diplomatic sources, said a US delegation at a Wednesday bilateral meeting gave their Turkish counterparts a list of 15 people they wanted to be released from prison. The United States also sought written assurance from the nine-person Turkish group that all US citizens would be released, the newspaper said.

Sözcü said that at the meeting, US officials made clear that the Trump administration expected the release of Brunson, 12 other US citizens in Turkish detention and Turkish citizens Hamza Akçay and Metin Topuz, who were arrested over their work for US diplomatic missions.

In addition, the newspaper said, the US side refused to confirm that it would give Turkey an exemption from sanctions on Iran to allow it to continue to purchase oil and gas according to existing contracts.

The Turkish lira has faced a steep decline since the sanctions were announced, plunging to a record low of 5,43 to the dollar on Monday as investors were spooked by the decision to review Turkish duty-free access to the US market.

Turkish demands for clemency over the breach of US sanctions by a banking official and the state-run Halkbank appears to be snagging an agreement over Turkey’s release of pastor  Brunson.

In talks in Washington on Wednesday, the Turkish delegation raised also concerns about Halkbank, which is under investigation by the US Treasury for its alleged role in evading sanctions, Bloomberg reported, citing a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

US officials told the Turks they wouldn’t discuss relief for Halkbank, or one of its bankers currently in a US jail, until Brunson was freed, the official said, according to the news wire.

Evidence provided by the prosecution in the New York trial of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy CEO of Halkbank, in January alleged that senior Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, knew of the scheme to circumvent the US sanctions using falsified documents. Erdoğan says Atilla is completely innocent of the charges and branded the trial as a conspiracy against his government.

Atilla is now serving 32 months in prison.

Erdoğan also denied that Turkey is holding Brunson and several other Americans, including three local consular officials, as bargaining chips.

Turkey has also demanded the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based Turkish Muslim scholar. The US isn’t considering extraditing Gülen, according to the official, Bloomberg reported. The US judiciary has maintained that Turkey has failed to provide sufficient evidence against Gülen.

A Turkish court on July 25 put the American pastor under house arrest after almost two years in pretrial detention.

Minister Gül on Tuesday said the court ruling on Brunson, who faces 35 years, was made with “justice, fairness and reason.”

Following the court ruling US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence threatened to impose “large sanctions” on Turkey if Brunson were not freed.

The Turkish prosecutor accuses Brunson, who runs a small church in İzmir, of activities on behalf of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as the Gülen movement, which is accused by the Turkish government of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016, an allegation strongly denied by the movement.

US-Turkish relations have taken a battering this year over diverse issues ranging from the Turkish purchase of a Russian missile defence system to contradictory policies in Syria, but it was the imprisonment of Brunson, a Turkey-based pastor, and other US citizens and employees that finally led to US sanctions on Turkey in late July.

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