Brunson is the tip of the iceberg in the US-Turkey crisis
Last month, the two governments said they were ready to normalize relations.
Turkish-German relations hit rock bottom in 2017 as well. The arrests of German citizens were at the center of the crisis. Erdoğan called Germans Nazis and Germany threatened with economic sanctions.
Last January, the then German foreign minister was photographed serving tea to his Turkish counterpart and Erdoğan is expected to visit Germany in September.
These cases show the crisis in Turkish-US relations with the arrest of U.S. Pastor Brunson in center stage can also be put behind them.
Brunson is just the tip of the iceberg. We may soon see Brunson flying to the U.S. in return for a positive development in the Halkbank case. This might stop the melting of the Turkish Lira, but will it also melt the iceberg that prevents the warming of relations?
In order to answer this question, one has to look at how we came to this point and here we have to turn our eyes to the Middle East.
Looking back, the main rupture came in 2003, when the Turkish Parliament voted against the agreement that would have enabled the U.S. army to use Turkey to enter Iraq. The U.S. army blamed the Turkish army’s unwillingness and the infamous “hood” incident when Turkish soldiers were raided by U.S. Army Special Forces in northern Iraq the same year was seen as an act of vengeance. The picture of “hooded” Turkish soldiers arrested by ally forces was a huge embarrassment. But even that crisis was put behind them.
Yet, the gap on Middle East policies has grown wider ever since. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ideological affinity with Islam and the Islamic world also made it difficult to bridge the gap. The rupture in Turkey’s relations with Israel, the U.S.’ best ally in the region, as well as the turn the Arab spring has taken has widened the divide. In the course of these few past years, Syria has become the main spoiler in relations.
Washington and European capitals could easily shift their priority from toppling Bashar al-Assad to fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has not been the case for Turkey. Ankara and its Western allies could have found ways to manage this divide in Syria. But the decision to arm the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) wing in Syria to fight ISIL was perceived in Ankara as a hostile act of support to its arch enemy.
Then came the failed coup attempt. Ankara concluded Washington had not shown enough cooperation in chasing the plotters, the Gülen network, whose leader Fethullah Gülen lives in the United States.
In the eyes of Ankara, the U.S., supported by other European capitals, is in bed with its two arch enemies, the PKK and the Gülenists. And then came the arrest of Halkbank executive Hakan Atilla. This was perceived in Ankara not only as a warning that Turkey should abide by U.S. policies in the region and avoid circumventing them, but also another step in a series of hostile actions to hurt the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration as the case was supposed to reveal details that were expected to be highly embarrassing for the ruling elites.
In short, Ankara believes that as a regional and assertive regional power, it is being punished by United States for not following its footsteps in the Middle East.
Detractions are possible in the relationship between super powers and their regional allies. Look at the divide between Europe and United States in Iran, for instance.
Usually in such cases, both sides use management diplomacy to bridge the divide or live with the differences with the least damage. What we currently have is arm wrestling; both think they have to win in order to have a prevailing say in the future of the Middle East.
Both Turkey and America’s ruling elites seem convinced that confrontation will work better than persuasion methods. In the case of Turkey, this approach obviously comes with a price tag, as it tries to keep its hand on the table to continue arm wrestling while the lira melts, leading to economic ruin.
Suppose Brunson is released and Turkey receives something in return. Both capitals will think their confrontation strategy has worked. But what is important is the substance of the deal. Is it a face saving deal that will keep the iceberg untouched? Or, will the two reach an understanding, putting an end to the arm wrestle, which would eventually decompose the iceberg.