Light at the end of the tunnel for Pastor Brunson
On June 29, in the middle of a key executive board meeting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), President Tayyip Erdoğan gave a break to receive important guests from the U.S. at the party headquarters in Ankara.
Two U.S. senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Lindsey Graham, were there mainly to urge for the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been in prison in Turkey for nearly two years on charges of aiding a terrorist organization and espionage. Brunson was taken into custody on Oct. 7, 2016 in the western province of İzmir, where he lives, for his alleged involvement in the illegal network of U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of masterminding the military coup attempt on July 15, 2016. He is currently under arrest with ongoing court cases.
Senior American officials, including U.S. President Donald Trump, have repeatedly asked Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan for Brunson’s release, who said it wasn’t up to him but the job of independent courts. Underlining that he gets the same answer whenever he asks for extradition of Gülen, or at least a legal action taken against him, Erdoğan addressed Trump through media at one point saying, “give the preacher, take the pastor.” The same debate was on the agenda during Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s visit to the U.S. to meet Vice President Mike Pence in order to be able to put relations back on track.
Two Turkish employees of the U.S. mission in Turkey, Metin Topuz and Hamza Uluçay, are also in prison, facing similar accusations.
Shaheen and Graham recently submitted a draft to the Senate for Turkey to be excluded from the joint production program of the F-35s, new-generation fighter jets, if Brunson is not released. That move is also linked to Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian-made S-400 missiles and has been voted on. It is now waiting for final approval.
But in the meantime the first two F-35s were handed over to the Turkish Air Force on June 21 (though they are still on U.S. territory while the training process continues). What’s more, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have announced an agreement for the coordinated patrol of Turkish and American soldiers around the Syrian town of Manbij in order to monitor the withdrawal of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia. Turkey has long objected to Washington’s pick of the YPG as partner against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), as the YPG is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is also designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. The Manbij agreement is another sign of the intention on both sides to de-escalate tension in relations.
There is also the approaching NATO Summit on July 11-12. Accordingly, there are scheduled changes in the joint defense policy of the Western alliance, including greater European contribution to European defense, which is likely to bring new responsibilities to Turkey. Imposing arms sanctions on Turkey at such a stage might therefore have consequences to joint defense on NATO’s most southeastern corner, neighboring Ukraine, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Senator Shaheen tweeted the following after the meeting in Ankara and after visiting Pastor Brunson in prison: “I’m in Turkey to help build a constructive dialogue with President Erdogan on the cases of Americans wrongfully arrested and other issues of mutual concern. President Erdogan was receptive to Lindsey Graham’s concerns.”
Graham also wrote the following on Twitter: “Spoke candidly [with Erdoğan] about Pastor Brunson and other friction points, including the purchase of Russian made S-400s and American made F-35s. However, when it comes to the US-Turkey relationship, failure is not an option.”
According to high-ranking Turkish sources, Erdoğan took the opportunity to outline Turkey’s position on all points of difference, from the status of Gülen to the YPG and the F-35/S-400 issue.
Indeed, what Senator Graham said essentially summarizes the case: When it comes to the U.S.-Turkey relationship, failure is not an option.
Now it seems that there is some light at the end of the tunnel, which could ease tension for both Erdoğan and Trump as it could in turn also trigger solutions to other problems.