Time to cool down US-Turkish relations

Time to cool down US-Turkish relations

Two days after the U.S. Treasury put Turkish Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on its sanctions list over the continued arrest of American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, the top diplomats of the two countries met to seek an acceptable exit from the situation.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the escalating crisis on Aug. 3 in Singapore on the sidelines of an ASEAN conference.

The meeting took place one day after Okan Müderrisoğlu of Sabah newspaper, which is in line with President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government, wrote some details about a telephone conversation that was held between Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump right before the sanctions were imposed. Müderrisoğlu cited unnamed ranking sources that during the conversation Trump told Erdoğan “at least six times” to “release the man,” referring to Brunson, or Turkey will face the consequences of being against the “Christian world.” The columnist wrote that Erdoğan’s answer was: “We both have people who love us and hate us.”

Right after his meeting with Pompeo, Çavuşoğlu said it was constructive, but the Turkish side would not accept threats from the U.S. as a way to solve problems, especially when there is a legal process involved. A State Department release later in the day confirmed that the meeting was a constructive one and contacts would continue in pursuit of a solution, but made it clear that there was no change in the original American stance.

The original U.S. stance, as announced by both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, was that Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S., would face sanctions as long as Brunson was not released. An İzmir court on July 25 ruled that Brunson could leave the prison where he was held for the last 20 months only to be moved to house arrest with an electronic tagging on. The sanctions came on Aug. 1. Additional statements from the American side hinting more sanctions if Brunson does not get released caused speculations that there could be more names in the upper echelons of Turkey’s political and business worlds.

It is clear that the senior Turkish and American diplomats told each other about the sensitivities of their governments once again. This is the first time the U.S. announced sanctions on an ally country, along with threats of an arms embargo.

The mood in Turkey is almost a “rally around the flag” one. Even people critical of Erdoğan’s politics think it is not the right time to highlight the differences and believe the humiliating tone deployed by the American administration should not be bowed down to.

The sensitivity of the Turkish side is clear: Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher leading an illegal network and accused of masterminding the 2016 military coup attempt, is still living in the U.S. without facing any legal action. And despite a relieving agreement over the Syrian town of Manbij, the collaboration of the U.S. forces with the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is still continuing.

The American side’s sensitivity is Brunson. They believe he could be released based on their assumption that Turkish courts are not independent and Erdoğan could do something about it — which they possibly supposed from a previous statement by Erdoğan, when he told Trump to “give the priest” to “take the priest” in return, meaning he wanted Gülen in return.

The rift takes place at a time when meeting the demands of the evangelical community back home could be crucial for the Trump-Pence team as the country is heading toward mid-term elections in November. Pence is known to be a strong evangelical believer too. It is also clear that Washington’s perception of Turkey is not a bright one at all. Politicians and top officials think they could dispense with Turkey without consequences. On the other hand, it seems Pentagon, headed by Jim Mattis, and the State Department, headed by Pompeo, are making efforts not to lose Turkey and finding a way to get what the Trump-Pence team wants.

Erdoğan and Trump should give diplomacy a chance without forgetting that it is time to cool down Turkish-U.S. relations, or maybe even put them on ice, as Sedat Ergin of daily Hürriyet said recently, not add fuel to the fire.

Murat Yetkin,