Let’s hope it is not another perfect misunderstanding
Last summer, when tensions between Washington and Ankara over the detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson had reached a breaking point, the White House sent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a crucial message through back channels. If Brunson were to be released, United States President Donald Trump would reciprocate with a series of gestures to Turkey.
The first round of negotiations for the release of Brunson had effectively collapsed on July 25, when Brunson was moved to house arrest instead of being released. In all official encounters following that decision by the Turkish court, U.S. officials argued there would be no more negotiations until Brunson is set free. Release Brunson and then we will talk about your expectations from us, they told the Turks.
Following his pull-aside meeting with Erdoğan at the NATO summit in Brussels, Trump had phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the release of Ebru Özkan, who was arrested at Ben Gurion airport and was facing terrorism charges. Trump had done so with high expectations that Erdoğan would return his favor by sending Brunson back home. However, he had felt betrayed and professionals in his administration had a hard time stopping him from signing a series of hard-hitting sanctions against Turkey.
This story was true. However, there was a parallel truth. While Turkey was being given deadlines and ultimatums in official meetings in August, Trump at the same time was sending messages to Beştepe through back channels that Erdoğan would not end up empty handed if Brunson had been allowed to go back to the U.S.
It took some time for Ankara to decide for Brunson’s release. In the meantime, Trump first approved the Global Magnitsky sanctions against the Turkish justice and interior ministers, then doubled the tariffs to Turkish steel and aluminum. After Brunson was finally discharged on Oct. 12 and left the country, Washington proceeded with quite a few steps to bring relations back to business as usual. The horrendous murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi accelerated the speed of the re-start of high-level contacts between Turkey and the U.S.
Trump and Erdoğan, who have not spoken in the last 3.5 months except for the two-minute salute at the United Nations in September, had two phone calls in the last 20 days. Both conversations took place in a warm and positive manner, sources tell me. The U.S. president even flattered Erdoğan by saying he sees him on American television quite a lot recently because of the Khashoggi incident and he always looks so handsome!
The normalization of relations started at the leadership level confirming that, in the near future too, a lot between Turkey and the U.S. would depend on the chemistry between the two presidents. And Trump eventually pushed the button for the gestures or favors he had promised over the course of last summer.
Long overdue combined patrols of the U.S. and Turkish troops started on the demarcation line in the Manbij area on Nov. 1. The Trump administration lifted the Magnitsky sanctions targeting two Turkish ministers for the detention of Brunson on Nov. 2. Meanwhile, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal was in Washington for the first extensive talks after Brunson’s release and was getting strong signals that the U.S. was getting ready to come up with a fresh and better Patriot offer. On Nov. 5, Washington announced that Turkey is among the eight countries to be given temporary exemptions from newly introduced sanctions on the imports of Iranian crude oil.
Last but not the least, during the first visit by Deputy Assistant Undersecretary Matt Palmer to Ankara, the U.S. announced bounties on the heads of three top illegal PKK leaders. Although it looks handsome on paper, it is less likely that the bounty move would end Turkey’s concerns for the deep military cooperation between Washington and the YPG in Syria. It rather feels like a move to stop Ankara from furthering attacks towards Rojava. Not to mention that the YPG trauma of Turkey simply cannot be eased with a few gestures.
An imminent gesture the Turkish president expects from Trump is about state-owned Turkish bank Halkbank’s ongoing troubles in the U.S. for the evasion of Iran sanctions. We understand from his own words that Erdoğan asked Trump in their phone call on Nov. 1 to end the troubles of Halkbank. And according to Erdoğan, Trump again promised him to order his people to find the best possible way.
It is not clear though on which file Erdoğan was given assurance by the U.S. president. In fact, there have been two investigations underway about Halkbank following the verdict against the bank’s former deputy general manager Mehmet Hakan Atilla.
The first one is the business of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under the Department of Treasury. Ankara has already been given positive signals that the fine to be issued by OFAC would be at a minimum level. After all, it will be an administrative decision.
The second investigation that has been carried out by the prosecutors at the U.S. Court of Southern District of New York (SDNY), however, is the real trouble. Rumors say they are ready to release their indictment on Halkbank, which would yield a new court case. We are talking about the U.S. court where Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen pled guilty for criminal charges. If Trump promised Erdoğan to kill an indictment at the SDNY, that is definitely the news of the year.
It does not seem plausible that Trump might really try to pull that off, especially after last week’s midterms, which resulted in the Democrats takeover of the majority at the House, giving them considerable oversight authority over the U.S. president. Yet again in Trump’s Washington, anything is possible!
Let’s hope relations between Ankara and Washington, which are yet on recovery mode, will not be shaken once again by a new misunderstanding.