What is next in Turkish-American ties?
United States Pastor Andrew Brunson was released and sent back home late Oct. 12 after a local court issued the lightest possible sentence on him although he had been sentenced to 35 years in prison for supporting multiple terror organizations and espionage.
This could be possible after three secret witnesses who had accused the pastor of multiple crimes have changed their testimony in the fourth hearing, in a development that brought about so many questions about the independence and impartiality of the Turkish justice system.
While thanking Turkey, U.S. President Donald Trump once again described Brunson’s detention as hostage-taking while denying that his administration had not made any deal with the Turkish government to secure the pastor’s release.
Leaving the Brunson case behind is of course very important as it will offer a very good opportunity for the two long-standing allies to start an era of normalization and to resolve scores of pending issues.
However, there is still much more work to be done before one can genuinely be optimistic for the future of bilateral ties.
One of the things that needs to be done in the immediate future is to intensify dialogue between the two capitals at all levels. It is very good news that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to pay a visit to Ankara on Oct. 16, although the real motive of his travel is to discuss the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Talks between Pompeo and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu will surely address how the two sides can capitalize the release of Brunson for the good sake of bilateral ties. One of the immediate issues is looming U.S. sanctions on Iran would also hurt Turkey as one of the main customers of Iranian oil.
Turkey has long voiced its expectation of being exempt from sanctions but no sound talks could be possible due to Washington’s anger on the continued detention of Brunson. As can be seen, U.S. sanctions on Iran will constitute the first test in Turkish-American ties in the post-Brunson case period.
Equally important is Turkey’s rising anger over the delayed withdrawal process of the YPG from Manbij although Pompeo and Çavuşoğlu have agreed on a timetable for the completion of the process. A day before Pompeo’s visit, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continued to urge the U.S. to take tangible steps to limit the military presence of the YPG in the eastern Euphrates, vowing Turkey will do whatever is necessary on its own in the said region if the U.S. shows reluctance.
The Halkbank case and expectations on the return of the former deputy manager of the bank, Hakan Atilla, will continue to be on the radar of bilateral ties while the delivery of F-35s will also be frequently addressed in the coming days and weeks.
When all is said, there is still one very important thing to be done by the U.S. administration. It has been a year since the U.S. has not been represented in the Turkish capital at the ambassadorial level and one might think the right decision would be to start the process of appointing one to Ankara following the midterm congressional elections in the U.S.
There are so many lessons for both Turkey and the U.S. to draw from the Brunson case. One of them is to use well-tried and proper diplomatic channels to avoid misunderstandings. The flood of wrong messages and distorted versions of developments happen to exist and dominate ties, particularly in the absence of these diplomatic mechanisms. It would be the right time to reinstate them for the future of Turkish-American ties.