By David Brunnstrom
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed on Friday to try to resolve a series of disputes, after relations between the NATO allies sank to their lowest point in decades.
Their meeting in Singapore followed Washington’s imposition on Wednesday of sanctions on two Turkish ministers over the case of Andrew Brunson, a U.S. pastor on trial in Turkey for backing terrorism.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described their conversation on the sidelines of a regional ministers’ meeting as constructive. “They agreed to continue to try to resolve the issues between our two countries,” she said.
Cavusoglu said he had repeated Turkey’s message that “the threatening language and sanctions does not achieve anything”, but added that he and Pompeo would take steps to resolve their differences when they returned home.
“Of course you can’t expect all issues to be resolved in a single meeting,” he told Turkish television channels. “But we have agreed to work together, closely cooperate and keep the dialogue in the coming period,” he added, also describing the talks as very constructive.
Washington imposed sanctions on Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, accusing them of playing leading roles in organizations responsible for the arrest and detention of Brunson, an evangelical Christian who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades. The move sent the Turkish lira to record low.
Within hours Turkey vowed to retaliate ‘without delay’ but since then the tone of comments from Ankara has moderated and so far it has taken no such step. Finance minister Berat Albayrak, who is President Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, also said relations with the United States would never break down, despite the temporary escalation.
Pompeo told reporters the United States had put Turkey on notice “that the clock had run and it was time for Pastor Brunson to be returned”.
“I hope they’ll see this for what it is, a demonstration that we’re very serious,” he said of the sanctions. “We consider this one of the many issues that we have with the Turks.”
“Brunson needs to come home. As do all the Americans being held by the Turkish government. Pretty straightforward. They’ve been holding these folks for a long time. These are innocent people,” he said. “We are going to work to see if we can find a way forward; I am hopeful that we can.”
The United States has also been seeking the release of three locally employed embassy staff detained in Turkey.
Brunson is charged with supporting a group Ankara blames for orchestrating an attempted coup in 2016. He denies the charges but faces up to 35 years in jail.
He was accused of helping supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric who Turkish authorities say masterminded the coup attempt in which 250 people were killed. He was also charged with supporting outlawed Kurdish PKK militants. Gulen denies the allegations.
Turkey has been trying to have Gulen extradited from the United States for two years.
Finance Minister Albayrak said on Thursday the sanctions would have a limited impact on the Turkish economy, although investors’ deepening concern over ties with the United States, also a major trading partner, sent the lira to record lows.
On Friday, the currency fell to 5.1140 against the dollar. The sell-off also hammered Turkish stocks and debt risk profile.
Brunson was in a Turkish prison for 21 months until he was transferred to house arrest last week. On Tuesday, a court rejected his appeal to be released altogether during his trial.
Washington and Ankara are also at odds over the Syrian war, Turkey’s plan to buy missile defenses from Russia and the U.S. conviction of a Turkish state bank executive on Iran sanctions-busting charges this year.
Brunson’s case has resonated with President Donald Trump and particularly with Vice President Mike Pence, who has close ties to evangelical Christians. Pence has been pressing behind the scenes for action, aides said.
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Editing by Nick Macfie, Paul Tait and David Stamp)