Turkish-American ties in crisis over Brunson

Turkish-American ties in crisis over Brunson

Consecutive statements and Twitter messages by United States President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence late July 26 have made obvious the crisis in ties between the U.S. and Turkey, two NATO allies.

Both Trump and Pence threatened Turkey with sanctions if pastor Andrew Brunson was not released “immediately,” in strongly-worded messages that do not fit diplomatic norms and traditions. To have a better picture, one should analyze the developments and diplomatic traffic between Ankara and Washington in the last two months.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu paid a visit to Washington in early June to cut a deal with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on cooperation in the Manbij city of Syria. The agreement has been regarded as a new chapter in ties to re-building trust and constructive dialogue so that the two sides can address some very important bilateral problems.

These include the continued detention of Brunson, Turkey’s extradition request of Fethullah Gülen, the Halkbank case, and Congress’ measures on Turkey’s probable procurement of the S-400 missile systems from Russia.

Despite the attempts to block the sale of the F-35 aircrafts to Turkey at Congress, the roll out ceremony for Turkey’s first F-35 took place at Lockheed Martin’s headquarters just three days before Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections. These two moves just on the eve of Turkey’s key elections have been regarded as Washington’s readiness to intensify dialogue and willingness to cooperate with Turkey on contested issues.

That was why two prominent U.S. congress officials, Jeanne Shaheen and Lindsey Graham, paid a surprise visit to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan only days after he won the polls to ask for the release of Brunson. Erdoğan later met Trump on the margins of a NATO summit on July 11 before the two men held a phone conversation on July 16.

In the meantime, a working group set up by officials from the foreign and justice ministries convened on July 13 in Ankara to discuss a number of disputed legal and consular affairs, including Brunson.

Turkey refrains from escalating

It seems all these contacts and traffic between Ankara and Washington led to the impression on the latter that Brunson would be released in the July 18 hearing, particularly after Erdoğan’s victory in polls that would push him to open a new page on ties with the Trump administration. No need to recall that it was upon this frustration that Trump described a Turkish court’s decision on the continued detention of Brunson as a “total disgrace” on July 20.

A week after this verdict, the same court ruled “house arrest” for Brunson, ending his 20-month stay in jail. With expectations that Brunson would return home after the July 18 hearing, Washington was far from being satisfied of the move. Tweets by Trump and Pence on July 26 are solid indicators of this sentiment in the U.S. administration.

Ankara’s response to the highest level threats from Washington was well-tailored. Almost all officials, except for Erdoğan, issued statements to slam the threats by Trump and Pence while calling NATO ally to return to constructive dialogue process to resolving bilateral disagreements.

Turkey’s immediate strategy aims not to further escalate tension with the U.S. in a bid not to cause unrepairable damages on ties.

On the same day, July 26, Congress voted on the Pentagon budget bill that includes blocking the sale of F-35s to Turkey, and Senate Foreign Committee voted in favor of a measure that would restrict loans from international financial institutions to Turkey.

No friends of Turkey in US?

Here are some findings from this crisis:

* Although it’s not certain what kind of sanctions the U.S. administration can impose on Turkey in line with the Trump-Pence threats, it may be well argued that Trump will sign the Pentagon budget into law in the coming days which would stipulate the F-35s blockage. However, the bill obligates the administration to present a report on ties with Turkey in 90 days after it goes into force. That means there will still be time for diplomacy to resolve this issue.

* For Washington, the continued detention of Brunson has now become a pre-condition before ties with Turkey. All other dimensions of bilateral ties risk to be negatively affected from the Brunson case.

* President Trump has always been very careful in the language he was using on Turkey since he came to power in January 2017. His last two tweets and the latest by Pence show the new stance adopted by the White House which does not hesitate to target Erdoğan directly. (In the meantime, there are unconfirmed reports by the U.S. media that argue about a tense phone conversation between Trump and Erdoğan on July 26, just before the U.S. president tweeted out his threatening message.)

* Turkey’s handling of the Brunson case has also proven to be problematic. It’s hard to explain how the court moved Brunson from prison to house arrest just a week after its first ruling. For Trump and American officials, Brunson is kept as a hostage as part of a political case. This characterization of this case led them to impose pressure on Turkey for the release of the pastor the same way Turkey and Germany resolved journalist Deniz Yücel’s case in February this year. Yücel was released and deported pending trial on the same day the Turkish court had accepted an indictment seeking up to 18 years in jail for him on charges of “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “stirring enmity.”

* One important fact is that Turkey has almost lost all its friends in the U.S. capital. Trump and Pence’s reaction leaves no room now that the administration has fully joined the Congress and Pentagon in growing anti-Turkey stance. Çavuşoğlu and Pompeo held an emergency phone talk late last night, but it’s hard to forecast what impact they would bring about. As for non-governmental circles, anti-Turkey lobbies in the U.S. seem to consolidate their anti-Turkey and anti-Erdoğan positions and to be more effective over the administration.

* The U.S. government’s threatening its NATO ally with sanctions marks another first after its arms embargo imposed on Turkey in reaction to the latter’s intervention in Cyprus in 1974.

* This picture as a whole depicts crisis and chaos in bilateral ties between Turkey and the U.S. because of both sides’ mishandling of the situation. The scope and duration of this crisis will be determined by the actions both sides will take in the coming days and weeks.

Serkan Demirtaş, Turkey, United States, Andrew Brunson