Hostage situation further frays Turkey-US ties
One of top issues at the two Erdoğan-Trump meetings - in May in Washington and in September in New York – was the file on the extradition of Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher Fetullah Gülen.
It is also no secret that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan persistently raised the issue of his expectation for the release of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who was arrested in Miami in 2016 for conspiring to evade international sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile,
in both meetings Trump urged Ankara to release the jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was arrested on terrorism charges over his alleged ties with the Gülen movement.
After his return to Turkey, Erdoğan said Ankara is seeking the possibility of a “swap” between Gülen and pastor Brunson. “They say ‘give us back the pastor.’ But you also have one pastor. Give him [Gülen] to us. Then we will try to give him [Brunson] to you. The pastor we have is currently on trial. Yours is not. He is living in Pennsylvania. But you could give him easily; you can give him right away,” he last week in Ankara.
In fact, this has been the talk of the town among Turkey-watchers in Washington for some time - but with a major twist. The idea of a swap was championed by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who got involved in Zarrab’s defense at the U.S. court. Giuliani, who is known to be a regular in Trump’s White House, has been keen knocking on doors at the State and Justice Departments in a bid to find allies for a possible diplomatic deal to swap between his client Zarrab and Brunson. However, Giuliani has been warned by American civil servants about the lack of legitimate basis for such a proposal in the U.S. legal system. He has also been warned not to put a clergyman in the same basket as an alleged Iranian gold trader, which carries the risk of triggering a backlash in the U.S. public opinion.
Well aware of the talk in Washington, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass has shared his concerns with his Turkish counterparts, underlining that the idea of any “swap” looks neither legally nor diplomatically viable. But despite friendly diplomatic warnings, Erdoğan still went ahead and publicly broke the news of his wish for a swap.
Just a few days after his remarks, a Turkish citizen employed at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul was arrested on terror charges over alleged links with Gülen suspects. The arrest of Metin Topuz is in fact the second incident at U.S. missions in Turkey. Hamza Uluçay, who worked as a translator at the U.S. Consulate in Adana, was arrested back in March over alleged links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The U.S. side has issued a strong statement accusing the Turkish government of deliberately leaking stories about Topuz, aiming to try him with allegations in the media rather than a court of law. The Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson, meanwhile, claimed that Topuz was not actually a member of the consulate staff.
Washington is extremely concerned with this new trend in Turkey, which they see as a kind of attempt to take “hostages” where U.S. nationals or Turks working for U.S. missions in Turkey are jailed as a bargaining chip. The alarming tone in the State Department’s recent travel warning on Turkey was not unrelated to this new trend. The travel warning, written after the detention of Topuz, revealed that U.S. citizen employees of a number of NGOs in Turkey have also recently experienced increased scrutiny, as well as rejections of their residence permit applications.
The perception that Ankara is collecting new prisoners for future political bargains will hurt none other than Turkey, throwing us into the category of countries like Pakistan and Egypt.
President Trump recently claimed that Turkey and the U.S. are right now “as close as they have ever been.” However, the current political agenda facing both of them resembles that of two countries at war.