This article was published in Arab News on July 31, 2018.
Pastor’s case hinders Turkey-US relations
While there were hopes that Turkey-US relations might be on an upward trend, they are instead on a risky path. It started 21 months ago when Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical Presbyterian pastor who was leading a small congregation in Izmir, Turkey, was arrested on charges of being member of the Gulen movement, which Turkey believes is behind the 2016 coup attempt. The charges were later amended to include “membership in an armed terrorist organization,” “espionage” and “attempting to overthrow the Turkish parliament and government.”
The Washington Post claimed that an agreement has been reached between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release Brunson in exchange for Ebru Ozkan, a young Turkish woman who was detained by Israeli authorities on charges of smuggling some materials for Hamas into Israel. She was in fact released and returned to Turkey while the pastor was moved from the prison to house arrest. The US authorities claimed that they were cheated. An unnamed Israeli official confirmed that Ozkan was released upon a phone call by Trump to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while a Turkish official denied the allegations. Why Turkey would release an American pastor in exchange for the release of a Turkish citizen in Israel remains a mystery.
The Turkish court on July 18 decided to postpone Brunson’s trial to October 12 and keep him in detention. One week later, without explanation, the same court decided to put him under house arrest.
Trump used his Twitter diplomacy to announce that the United States will impose “large sanctions” on Turkey. Its deputy president Fuat Oktay, foreign minister Mevlut Çavuşoglu and presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey will not bow to such threats.
This exchange of recriminations brought the case to a stage that became more difficult to resolve. The situation is further complicated by other factors: On the US side, many of Trump’s associates are Presbyterian and strong supporters of Brunson. Despite Turkey’s growing negative image in the US, the need for cooperation with it continues in Syria because of its military presence in four critical places: Jerablous, Afrin, Idlib and Manbij.
Despite Turkey’s growing negative image in the US, the need for cooperation with it continues in Syria because of its military presence in four critical places
On Turkey’s side, there are too many strings that the US can pull to annoy it: One of them is to refuse the extradition of Fetullah Gulen. Second is the case of Hakan Atilla, the deputy manager of a Halkbank, a state-owned Turkish bank, who is in jail in the US for his involvement in circumventing US sanctions on Iran. There was an expectation in Turkey that Atilla would be released in exchange for Brunson.
Third, the US Department of Treasury has yet to determine the amount of the fine it will impose on Halkbank for its role in circumventing the sanctions. If the fine turns out to be substantial, it may shake Turkey’s fragile economy.
Fourth, there was an amendment in the US Congress to bar the delivery of the sophisticated F-35 jet fighters to Turkey, which was waiting for presidential approval. Trump had promised Erdogan at the NATO summit that he would not sign it, but after the Brunson crisis, what Trump is going to do has become uncertain.
Fifth, upon the Turkish court’s decision to keep Brunson in detention, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced a bipartisan bill to restrict loans from international financial institutions to Turkey, which is in dire need for foreign funds.
Sixth, Turkey asked to be exempted from the forthcoming US embargo on Iran because of its dependence on Iranian oil and gas. Turkey cannot count on such tolerance under the new circumstances.
Seventh, municipal elections will be held in Turkey in March 2019. These developments may negatively affect the ruling party’s performance in the elections.
All these setbacks could have been avoided if the Turkish court had decided to release Brunson. The least damaging solution at present will be for Erdogan to find a way to secure his release, even if this may further damage the Turkish judiciary’s image.