Agenda-shaping for Turkey-US talks

Agenda-shaping for Turkey-US talks

Next week Washington will host the first round of meetings of the three committees established to work on areas of dispute between Turkey and the United States. The forming of the committees was agreed on by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu in their meeting in Ankara on March 16. 

As much as the overall success of these negotiations ultimately depends on whether the U.S. is able to deliver on its long-standing promise for the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to the east of the Euphrates in Syria, the priorities for the American side are dramatically different.

Ankara has announced that the first committee will work on Syria, the second one on Iraq and the third one on the fight against what they call the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ). As for the United States, the third committee will function to discuss everything else apart from Syria and Iraq. “Everything else” means trying deter Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles and also upping their game for the release of U.S. nationals and U.S. consulate staff currently under arrest in Turkey.

It seems that the Trump administration will try to persuade Ankara to give up on the S-400s, even though the Turks have already announced that they have made the first payment. Interestingly, the Americans argue that the issue is not over for them until the Russian batteries actually arrive on Turkish soil. This might buy Turkey some time in negotiations, in which the U.S. will possibly come up with a renewed Patriot proposal. However, if the Turkish approach remains sticking to the deal with Moscow at any cost then a deferred action in implementation of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) will be inevitable. And if that happens then we can talk about a situation similar to that of 1975, when the U.S. came up with an arms embargo against Ankara to punish the Turkish operation in Cyprus.

Still, the sanctions calendar under CAATSA may not be too pressing compared to other areas where Turkey might be subject to heavy sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress. The file regarding the Americans currently under arrest in Turkey seems to stand out as a particularly urgent matter for Washington due to heavy pressure from the U.S. Congress.

The common in the offices of the congressmen at Capitol Hill is that the health condition of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been held in a prison in İzmir since December 2016 amid allegations of being involved in the failed coup attempt that year, is reportedly deteriorating. The U.S. State Department spokeswoman said last week that the last time his lawyer visited Brunson was on Feb. 6, and a member of U.S. consulate staff was also present at the meeting.

What was not revealed to public was that the Feb. 6 meeting was in fact the first encounter of Pastor Brunson with the prosecutor of the case in 16 months. This meeting still did not result in access to the case file or the indictment, which has further shattered Brunson’s hopes. Details of the meeting were hastily reported to certain members of Congress by Brunson’s lawyers, but I have heard that the State Department is trying to stall members of the Congress from getting hold of the minutes of the meeting, in an effort to defer any possible action that might put the upcoming diplomatic negotiations in harm’s way.

But no matter how hard the State Department diplomats try, the campaign carried out by Brunson’s lawyers - who tell everyone that Brunson is in the midst of a serious depression and is simply waiting for his death – indeed seems to be working. The talk on Capitol Hill is that if Pastor Brunson dies in a Turkish prison it would have devastating consequences for relations between Washington and Ankara, which are already hanging by a thread.

There is an unknown aspect of Brunson’s case that is crucial to understanding why President Donald Trump has personally been on board to use every occasion to demand his release. The “Free American Pastor Andrew Brunson” campaign is being pursued by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), where Trump’s personal lawyer for the Mueller investigation, Jay Sekulow, is chief counsel.

Sekulow is the man handling the most delicate dossier of Trump’s political career. One can only imagine the intimacy of their relationship. I wonder whether Ankara is even aware of the fact that Brunson’s case is being made in America by Trump’s own lawyer.

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