Will Ankara manage to pull a rabbit out of the hat prior to Oct 12?
In September every year, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in New York is a golden opportunity for all countries to seek solutions for their most crucial diplomatic matters. All week long, events at the U.N. provide an opportunity for leaders to break formal meeting guidelines and engage in unfiltered and casual conversations. That is why many people wondered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and United States President Donald Trump were going to engage in a pull aside conversation to overcome the unpalatable state of affairs, which was triggered over the disagreement on the release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson who was detained almost two years ago in İzmir for being a member of FETÖ.
It did not happen.
They briefly saluted each other and shook hands backstage between their consecutive speeches at the UNGA. Erdoğan later confirmed to colleagues traveling with him that the encounter was nothing more than a simple “hello.” He added further that it was inconceivable for him to approach Trump at the luncheon hosted by the U.N. Secretary General the same day because he was sitting at the head table with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
A favorable myth in Turkey, often overplayed as part of a fallacious communication strategy, which suggests that if the two leaders have met they would end the crisis, fizzled out.
As far as I could gather, prior to Erdoğan’s New York visit, the Turkish side had tested the waters to see if the U.S. administration would be open to scheduling a meeting between the two presidents along the margins of the UNGA, however it did not receive a positive signal. The fact that the two leaders did not even have an informal chat is not merely a scheduling issue.
Since the failure of a possible deal following the July negotiations, the U.S. side has made it absolutely clear that the door was closed on further negotiations that would lead to what would appear to be an exchange of Brunson for former Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who is currently serving his sentence in New York for busting Iran sanctions. In last week’s diplomatic contacts, Americans insisted on the same position and suggested if Erdoğan was not going to come up with a commitment on Brunson’s release, there would be no point in bringing two presidents together in an exclusive meeting.
Ankara not only rejected such a commitment but also pushed for “a comprehensive settlement” approach, which would cover both the extradition of Atilla and stopping the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) from issuing a penalty to Halkbank.
Despite the gloomy atmosphere in diplomatic talks, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which was published on the day of Erdoğan’s arrival in New York, was suggesting that there was hope that Brunson would be released at the next trial due on Oct. 12. A U.S. official was quoted in the article, who said the best strategy before this October hearing was to be a bit calm because Turks are finally recognizing now that the U.S. is willing to act.
Confusing messages from the U.S. side kept coming the next day as Secretary of State Pompeo spoke on the matter at a press conference along the margins of the UNGA. He indeed confirmed their expectation for the release of Brunson next month but the latter part of the same statement raised eyebrows in Erdoğan’s delegation.
“I’m sure there will be some conversations this week. But make no mistake, there would be nothing that we would share with them here that we have not already shared with them already about President Trump’s demands,” said Pompeo. It was another way of publicly closing the door on discussing Turkey’s demands. Just as Trump and Erdoğan did not have those conversations, neither did Pompeo and Çavuşoğlu. No meeting took place in New York between the two top diplomats.
The Turkish side considered the WSJ article and Pompeo’s statements as part of a deliberate U.S. tactic to increase pressure on Ankara although “there was no sign that Brunson would be released” for many officials I spoke with in Erdoğan’s delegation.
At his final speech only a few hours before his departure from the United States, Erdoğan hit back in a raging tone and said “Some circles in the current administration suppose they would solve the differences of opinion between us by threats, pressure and blackmail.” I felt this was a direct response to Pompeo’s statements.
My impression is that as long as Washington tries to keep Ankara on edge with coercive public declarations, Pastor Brunson’s release would be in further jeopardy. I heard there are people in government circles who not only oppose Brunson’s release but advocate for his return to jail.
On the other hand, if Ankara cannot succeed to pull a rabbit out of the hat in the next two weeks, then nobody can or will stop Trump from signing new sanctions against Turkey, which would probably target the Turkish business community this time.