SINGAPORE — Despite a sharp deterioration in relations over the detention of an American pastor, the United States and Turkey remain valued partners, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday, in an apparent bid to ease tensions that have rocked ties between the NATO allies.
Pompeo told reporters on the sidelines of an Asian security forum in Singapore that the two countries would continue to work with each other in the framework of the alliance and on other matters.
"Turkey is a NATO partner with whom the United States has every intention of continuing to work cooperatively," Pompeo said.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration took the rare, if not unprecedented, step of hitting two senior Turkish officials with sanctions over the case of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who remains in detention despite repeated demands from President Donald Trump for his release. Pompeo met on Friday with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to discuss the matter behind closed doors and said those talks had been "constructive."
"I made clear that it is well past time that Pastor Brunson be freed and be permitted to return to the United States," he said, adding that several detained local State Department employees should also be released. "I am hopeful that in the coming days we will see that occur," Pompeo said.
He acknowledged “lots of challenges” with Turkey, but said Washington and Ankara had been able to work closely and well together. They have been at odds over numerous matters, including military activity in northern Syria and Turkey’s plans to purchase an advanced air defense system from Russia.
Ties between Russia and Turkey are growing closer than ever, as Russia runs into widespread diplomatic fallout from the poisoned spy scandal and Turkey’s relations with its Western allies worsens over human rights issues and its military operations against Kurdish militia in Syria.
Speaking to Turkish journalists after his meeting with Pompeo, Cavusoglu also described their discussion as "extremely constructive" and said the two would continue to work toward resolving disputes. But he said threats would not work. "We repeated to them that nothing can be achieved through threatening language and sanctions and we believe that this was well understood," he said.
Brunson, 50, is being tried on espionage and terror-related charges, which he and the U.S. government vehemently deny. He was arrested in December 2016 following a failed coup on charges of "committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member" and espionage. Although he was released to home detention, he faces a prison sentence of up to 35 years if he is convicted on both counts at the end of his ongoing trial. The evangelical pastor, who is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, has lived in Turkey for 23 years and led the Izmir Resurrection Church.
Last week, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey if Brunson was not immediately released. They said his recent transfer from prison to house arrest was not enough and on Wednesday, the Treasury Department hit Turkey's Justice Minister, Abdulhamit Gul, and Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, with sanctions that block any assets they may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them..
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected the U.S. demands, saying his government won't back down and is willing to "go its own way" if the U.S. acted. The Turks have also vowed to retaliate for the sanctions "without delay."
The Turkish leader has previously connected Brunson’s return to the U.S. to the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania. Ankara blames Gulen for the coup attempt, while the cleric denies involvement.