Could ‘supernatural wisdom’ prevail in Turkey-US ties?
Now that the Brunson episode of the Turkish-American relations is finalized with a grand spectacle at the Oval Office where the pastor prayed for “supernatural wisdom” for U.S. President Donald Trump, we can go back to the remaining dramas between Ankara and Washington. There is no doubt Ankara’s decision to finally release pastor Andrew Brunson from detention would detoxicate the mood at the leadership level between the two countries. However, we should not fool ourselves with fantasies. Things may get worse before they get better.
I am not an incorrigible pessimist. I just happen to live in Washington where it is impossible not to acknowledge the structural cleavage between the two NATO allies. It may take years for Turkey to recover from this image of a hostage-taking country, which they believe has drifted away from the Western alliance under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule.
Not to mention the Trump administration is adamant to get the other U.S. “hostages” in Turkish jails as soon as possible. Three local members of their consulate staff in Turkey plus some six or seven U.S. citizens are still in detention including the NASA scientist Serkan Gölge who has specifically been mentioned by top administration officials in public statements. In the next coming months it is highly possible that some of them, whose names we do not even know, will be released with Turkish public not even noticing.
In his remarks during his meeting with Brunson and his family, Trump rebuffed allegations of a secret deal with Ankara for ending the house arrest of the pastor. Although he did not hide they had negotiated long and hard for this end, he said they do not pay ransom in the United States.
We know that from the very beginning Washington saw Brunson as a political hostage who was kept in detention by the political authority in Turkey as a bargaining chip for gains on other fronts. Trump’s words at the Oval Office two days ago confirmed that just like they saw Brunson as a hostage they saw the Turkish demands in negotiations as a ransom request.
However, the absence of a comprehensive deal does not necessarily mean that the United States has not paid any ransom to get Brunson back home. The signals that they had sent to Ankara through the talks between U.S. Treasury officials and Halkbank’s lawyers over a possible fine for evasion of Iran sanctions probably had a considerable effect. I had written last week that a relatively small fine on Halkbank looks plausible. Twelve hours before Brunson’s final trial on Oct. 12 some senior administration officials confirmed to the NBC that the U.S. would ease economic pressure on Turkey if Brunson were set free.
Just as Trump mentioned, Ankara and Washington were indeed about to cut a deal two and a half months ago. And that deal included both a small fine on Halkbank and the extradition of Halkbank’s top executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who is currently in prison in New York for sanctions busting, allowing him to serve the rest of his sentence in Turkey. We understand the first portion of that failed deal is still on the table and will now be negotiated in seriousness under Trump’s scrutiny. That might be way more than just a consolation for Ankara saving the already struggling Turkish economy from another major hit.
Whilst, the second portion of July’s failed deal might not be happening any time soon. And not only because the United States, in the last round of talks, closed the door to any formula that might look like a simultaneous prisoner exchange. I recently learned that Atilla has not yet withdrawn his request for appeal, which was the necessary legal condition for extradition and a step Ankara has been ambitiously encouraging Atilla to take. His reluctance might indeed feed long-term rumors that he actually does not want to serve his sentence in Turkey.
The first possible hurdle to a quick recovery of strained ties between Ankara and Washington is due only in 20 days. Nov. 4 is the U.S. deadline for its allies to end imports of all crude oil, natural gas and other hydrocarbon compounds from Iran. Secondly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis — before Nov. 2 — will have to present to Congress an assessment on how the Turkish acquisition of the Russian S-400s would affect American weapon systems operated jointly with Turkey.
Although the Trump administration might now leverage Brunson’s release to curb down the eagerness at the Congress to be tough on Turkey, the sanctions climate would unlikely evaporate all of a sudden. And then we also will have to see how quickly Trump will order the lifting of the Global Magnitsky sanctions on two Turkish ministers and doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum.