What should Erdoğan do about Brunson, Mr Trump?
A few hours after a Turkish court ruled to keep American pastor Andrew Brunson in jail on July 18, U.S. President Donald Trump posted a message on Twitter about the case. “A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long. @RT_Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!” Trump tweeted.
This message raises a few questions over both the case and the state of Turkish-American relations.
Brunson has been in jail for the last 20 months, accused of being in contact with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the illegal network of the U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Trump has several times asked Erdoğan for Brunson’s release. Erdoğan, every single time, said it was not up to him but “is the job of independent Turkish courts.” And whenever Erdoğan asked Trump for the extradition of Gülen, or at least some kind of action to stop him from running his network from Pennsylvania, Trump gave the same answer: Address the independent courts.
Recently, Erdoğan received two U.S. senators in Ankara who had asked the Trump administration to exclude Turkey from the joint production of the new generation F-35 fighter jets if Brunson does not get released. Trump and Erdoğan talked to each other again during the NATO Summit on July 11 and over the phone before Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16.
Was Trump expecting the release of Brunson due to those political contacts?
The release of Brunson, if it seems like it was facilitated by Trump, would of course help the U.S. president domestically when he needs some good news.
The second question is: What exactly does Trump want Erdoğan to do when he tells him he should do something? Use his political influence over the court to get Brunson out? Would that be acceptable when millions of Turks want the courts to be free of any exterior influence? And, if so, does that mean Trump can “do something” regarding the Turkish demands on Gülen?
Actually, there is an agreement between Turkey and the U.S. on the exchange of criminals dating back to 1981, suggesting at least a “temporary arrest” for those who have arrest warrants against them. Would Trump think of using his power to initiate that if he can sort out his inner problems with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)?
When it comes to using political leverage, such as sanctions on Turkey, it is unlikely it will help anything. The Senate related the F-35 case with the Turkish decision to buy the Russian S-400s for its air defense, but following the Turkish commitments to NATO when many European members were reluctant for more contribution, a U.S. State Department official, Tina Kaidanow, said they were discussing the sale of Patriots with the Turks instead.
Does it make any sense to sell Patriots to Turkey while trying to exclude the country from an arms project of which it is a co-producer? Speaking of leverage, it might be helpful to read between the lines of Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy’s remarks on July 19.
Aksoy’s press conference was announced after Trump’s tweet hit the media and obviously reflected the chain of command from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
After repeating the standard line about Brunson and independent courts, Aksoy said the American administration should stop playing with time about a possible action regarding Gülen. He added that the point was made clear to the American side during a Joint Working Group meeting in Ankara on July 13. In the same press conference, Aksoy also listed Turkish contributions to NATO for Western security. However, a row took place when Trump sent a team to Ankara to ask Turkey to implement sanctions on its neighbor Iran, despite the vital energy agreements in between.
It might be giving too much meaning to those words but it seems to me that if Trump can “do something” about Gülen, it might be highly reciprocated by Erdoğan.