- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The head of U.S. European Command arrived in Turkey Wednesday, amid growing tensions between Washington and Ankara over the country’s military dealings with Russia and its continued detention of an American citizen.

Army Gen. Curtis Scapriotti arrived in in the Turkish city of Izmir on Wednesday for bilateral talks with Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Yasar Guler. The western Turkish city, which lies on the Aegean coastline over 360 miles from Ankara, is the headquarters for NATO’s land component.

The coastal military facility is also where the Rev. Andrew Brunson, a U.S. pastor, is being held under house arrest by Turkish forces, on charges of espionage tied to his alleged ties to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, Emirati news outlet The National reported.

Mr. Gulen and the PKK are considered terrorists by the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The charges against Mr. Brunson accuse the pastor of playing a role in the failed 2016 military coup to overthrow Mr. Ergodan’s government. Local reports claim Gen. Scapriotti was scheduled to meet with Mr. Brunson, but U.S. and Turkish officials have dismissed the claim.

The four-star general’s visit is geared toward discussing “a variety of defense matters, while highlighting the strong U.S. and Turkey mil-to-mil relationship,” European Command officials said in a statement ahead of the visit.

Gen. Scapriotti will oversee the NATO change of command ceremony at Izmir and visit with U.S. forces stationed at the Incirlik air base, U.S. command officials say.

On Wednesday, administration officials reportedly put the final touches on the new package of sanctions, which are modeled similarly to those levied against Russia in recent months, for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, Bloomberg reported.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed Wednesday that Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu were the prime targets of the new round of sanctions.

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence weighed in on the debate on social media, with Mr. Trump demanding his release in an April tweet.

“Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason,” he wrote. “They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!” Mr. Trump added.

Mr. Brunson was transferred from prison to house arrest in July, but a Turkish court this week denied his most recent appeal for release.

“It’s an ongoing conversation, it’s a very sensitive matter,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, shortly after the court decision. “We would like Pastor Brunson to be brought home very soon,” she added.

U.S.-Turkish relations had seemed to be warming, after Washington agreed to work with Ankara’s forces battling PKK elements in the U.S.-controlled Syrian city of Manbij. But that goodwill quickly faded after congressional lawmakers passed legislation banning deliveries of the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Turkey. The ban, added to defense legislation on the Pentagon’s budget blueprint for fiscal year 2019, was in opposition to a missile-defense deal between Ankara and Russia.

Neither the Pentagon nor the State Department has taken action against Turkey, a NATO ally, over its plan to field the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system. Opponents of the S-400 inside and outside the Pentagon deal say Ankara’s decision to field the Russian-made anti-aircraft missile system will draw Turkey deeper into Moscow’s growing sphere of influence in the Middle East.

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