This article was published in Arab News on October 15, 2018.
Turkey-US relations remain uncertain despite Brunson’s release
An American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who spent 18 months in a Turkish prison and three months under house arrest, was released on Friday and flew back home. He was the pastor of an evangelical church in Izmir and lived there for 20 years. His case had become highly politicized because the pastor was accused of “spying and committing a crime on behalf of a terrorist organization without being a member of it.”
His release was received with great relief both in Turkey and the US. The Turkish president’s office released a statement saying: “Turkey is a country of the rule of law; the courts are independent and Turkey does not bow down to any foreign pressure.”
The Izmir court’s verdict was drafted in a manner to avoid an unnecessary new controversy with the US. It reconfirmed that Turkey’s position — that the pastor was not unnecessarily kept in jail — was correct; on the other hand, he was released because he had served the due prison term. A deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party drew attention to this aspect of the verdict, saying: “Turkey’s claims that the pastor was guilty proved to be right since he was punished with a prison sentence.”
In fact, the court punished the pastor with a prison sentence of more than three years, while releasing him through a mechanism reminiscent of the parole practice in the US, citing his time already spent in jail.
US President Donald Trump tweeted immediately after the release, writing “we worked hard,” thus implying that the release was secured thanks to their efforts. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that millions of Americans’ prayers had been answered.
The only discordant voice came from the de facto political partner of Turkey’s ruling party. Devlet Bahceli, chairman of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, said that the release would cause unease among the Turkish public, adding: “Brunson’s cooperation with the terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party has been confirmed. The release of such a person is regretful.”
Brunson’s case is only one item in a long list of clashing interests between Turkey and the US. The list also includes Turkey’s expectation for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher living in the US who Ankara considers to be the main actor behind the 2016 failed military coup. Turkey also expects the US not to impose any fines on the Turkish state-owned lender Halkbank for its involvement in the circumvention of the US embargo on Iran, and to release Halkbank’s deputy manager Hakan Atilla, who is serving a prison sentence in the US.
If Ankara and Washington use Brunson’s release as the first step toward a diplomatic thaw, a more favorable atmosphere may prevail. If, on the contrary, the US draws the conclusion from Brunson’s release that pressure on Turkey will help obtain other concessions, relations may move in the opposite direction
Other contentious issues include: The US promising to withdraw the Kurdish fighters it supports from Manbij to the east side of the Euphrates; Washington’s opposition to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system; the US Senate resolution to bar the delivery of F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey; more than a dozen US citizens and locally recruited US embassy staff detained in Turkey; and other less important contentions.
It is unclear whether Brunson’s release is the result of a quid pro quo deal agreed between Turkey and the US but, before the pastor’s court hearing in August, US officials had suggested that Turkey was holding him as a bargaining chip for the extradition of Atilla. Last Thursday, US TV channel NBC aired a similar claim that senior officials had agreed with their Turkish counterparts that some of the economic sanctions imposed on Turkey could be eased in exchange for the pastor’s release. A State Department spokesperson said she was not aware of such a deal, but Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on the record proposing: “You give us our pastor (Gulen), we give you your pastor.”
Notwithstanding this rumor, if Ankara and Washington use Brunson’s release as the first step toward a diplomatic thaw, a more favorable atmosphere may prevail. If, on the contrary, the US draws the conclusion from Brunson’s release that pressure on Turkey will help obtain other concessions, relations may move in the opposite direction.
The campaign for the Nov. 6 congressional elections may become a platform to blame Turkey for the pastor’s case, because both Trump and Pence rely very heavily on the evangelist electorate. This may provoke a reciprocal action by Ankara, because Turkey is also in a campaign ahead of municipal elections on March 31, 2019.
The first signs of smoother relations came on Saturday, when Trump received Brunson in the White House and thanked Erdogan, and the Turkish president responded with equally smooth words. One can only wish that this thaw continues.