The case of U.S. Pastor is turning up the heat in Turkey U.S. relations. What next?
It’s been a torrid week of acrimony between the U.S. and Turkey over the detention of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson. Things started to unravel two weeks ago after a brief period when it seemed the issue was on the verge of being resolved. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, who had reportedly secured a deal that would see Brunson go home in exchange for a list of Turkish demands was reportedly blindsided when, on July 26, President Donald Trump issued a harshly-worded tweet threatening “large sanctions” on Turkey if Brunson wasn’t released “immediately.” Vice president Mike Pence, speaking at the same conference where Pompeo was expected to announce the deal, also threatened sanctions. No one was quite sure what prompted the outbursts but a day earlier, Brunson had been in court where he was released from prison but placed under house arrest, a move some say angered Trump and Pence, who were expecting the pastor to be sent home. On August 1, the White House turned up the temperature another notch, using the Magnitsky Act to sanction Turkish Minister of Justice, Abdülhamit Gül and Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu. For Turkey, that was the final straw. In a rare moment of national unity, Turkey’s major political parties issued a joint statement on August 2 rejecting what they termed the “threatening statements” of the U.S. and promised to respond within the scope of “international reciprocity.” The extremely delicate situation has the potential to permanently damage Turkey-U.S. relations. But is there a way out?
►There’s been a ser es of aggress ve moves on the U.S. part over the Brunson case but th s sanct on ng of m n sters s so far the most extreme. What was the th nk ng beh nd sanct on ng these spec f c mn sters?
The U.S. has chosen these two minister because of the nature of the case in question. The case pertains to the trial of Pastor Brunson who is accused of having conducted activities that undermine the security of Turkey. The information about what Mr. Brunson did was provided by internal security agencies tied to the Ministry of Interior. The courts that are dealing with the case, on the other hand, are part of the Ministry of Justice. The U.S. has also provided a broader explanation that these two ministers were mostly involved in the violation of human rights in Turkey and the deterioration of the rule of law over the last few years. So, the reasoning behind the decision includes both more focused allegations about the Brunson case and broader allegations about violations of human rights and the rule of law.
►How d d we reach th s po nt cons der ng there were backroom negot at ons go ng on?
It seems that the American side, for whatever reason, chose not to use diplomatic channels. Because President Trump and Vice-President Pence phrased their statements as a public challenge to Turkey rather than responding in a behind-thescenes, diplomatic way, Turkish authorities had no choice but to come out and publicly say: ‘No one can dictate to us what our independent judiciary should do.’ Unintentionally, the American message created the opportunity for a rare expression of unity among Turkey’s quarrelsome parties, bringing all together in saying ‘no one can threaten us in this way.’ From the very beginning, for its own domestic needs and purposes, it seems that the American government chose to go about this problem in a public rather than an institutionalized or diplomatic way, and this has shaped the Turkish response. The problem now is that turning back to diplomatic channels is difficult. Public utterances have reduced the chances for handling the situation diplomatically.
►Turkey does seem to have the ab l ty to get th s over w th qu ckly – by releas ng Brunson - but t seems to want to extract some ga ns for tself before t does. B gger ssues clearly are at play here. Is th s really about those ssues rather than a deta ned pastor?
Currently, there are a number of disagreements between Turkey and the U.S. We may talk about the S-400 missile defense system; we may talk about America’s plan to change the conditions under which the rest of the world can trade with Iran; we can talk about the significant differences over Syria regarding whom the U.S. should support and how; or we can even talk about the pending gas exploration disagreements surrounding Cyprus. The more we think, the more problems we may discover. These developments, each in a different domain, have created their own tension. Various attempts have been made to tackle them through diplomacy. The Brunson case ended up becoming the symbolic event that triggered an escalation of tensions. It is an unfortunate choice because it is very closely tied with domestic politics, both in Turkey and the U.S. There is a huge evangelical constituency in the U.S. Some of the members of the Trump administration are evangelicals. Unfortunately, when this issue became the topic of public disagreement, the two countries were led into a situation where diplomatic channels were ignored. Public opinion became too much involved narrowing down the room for an agreement. We ended up with the current politics of confrontation. In some ways this is a lesson in geopolitics: given enough contentious issues that remain unresolved, the smallest spark can set off a crisis.
The U.S. is largely to blame for escalating the issue publicly and forcing Turkey into a corner. But part of the problem also lies with Turkey. Turkish decision makers underestimated the importance American political leaders attached to the Brunson case. Once they discovered its importance, they misjudged the extent of the concessions they could extract from the U.S. In other words, they were wrong on two fronts: Initially by not appreciating how important this was as a symbolic issue that would affect the relationship and then, once they realized its importance, overestimating their own bargaining power.
►What do you th nk s the way out go ng forward?
The way to go forward is to not respond to American provocations. Just because they say something, you don’t need to retort in equal measure. If Mr. Trump makes a statement, you may get a lower ranking official provide a response, try to cool things down and focus on other things. This may help deflate the immediacy of the problem without losing face. The Americans, by virtue of the fact that they have chosen to deal with this publicly, have made it impossible for the Turkish government to release Brunson right away. The Americans have not appreciated that this is now a very sensitive domestic issue for Turkey while the Turks have experienced difficulties in appreciating that there are limits to what they can demand from the US.