Nine things that came out of the release of US pastor

The Brunson case could be positive for the Erdogan administration in the short term if it prevents Trump’s attacks and angry tweets.
Tuesday 23/10/2018
Freed US pastor Andrew Brunson (R) and US President Donald Trump before a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, on October 13. (AFP)
Cause célèbre. Freed US pastor Andrew Brunson (R) and US President Donald Trump before a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, on October 13. (AFP)

Turkish officials have released US pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned for two years on charges of conspiring with illegal groups. Brunson was freed following a ruling that said the 24 months he had been detained was sufficient for the court’s 3-year prison sentence.

Brunson’s imprisonment was a sore spot in US-Turkey relations. The United States applied pressure to get the pastor released through increased tariffs and sanctions against Turkey last summer, resulting in a rapid devaluation of the Turkish lira.

While Brunson’s freedom may seem like a positive development in bilateral relations, the case had already fatally wounded the credibility of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his administration.

By identifying the Erdogan administration as “hostage-taking,” the Brunson case lowered the Turkish government to the level of the regimes in North Korea and Iran, which have isolated themselves from the international community.

In September, Erdogan said: “‘Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him (Gulen) to us. Then we will try him (Brunson) and give him to you.” The Turkish government alleges that Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim cleric who lives in Pennsylvania, orchestrated the failed coup in July 2016.

Erdogan’s “preacher swap” comment made international headlines but he was not able to get Gulen and was left with no choice but to send Brunson to US President Donald Trump through squabbling. By the end of Brunson episode, Erdogan appeared to be a hostage taker — a failed one.

A second result of the Brunson debacle was the load it placed on Turkey’s economy. During Brunson’s trial in June, the Turkish lira was 4.62 to the dollar. After the decision for Brunson to remain detained but under house arrest, the lira slid to 7 liras to the dollar in August.

The local currency slowly descended and settled at around 6 liras to the greenback but the country had been shaken. In addition, there were US-imposed tariffs on the considerable amount of steel from Turkey. The Turkish economy, which was not doing well, was severely damaged with Trump’s angry Twitter storm.

Third, as Turkey and Kurdish expert Henri Barkey said, the Brunson decision and trial “showed the injustice of Turkey’s judicial system.” A nonsensical indictment claimed that Brunson helped both the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Gulenists in an attempt to divide the country. Then came the alleged CIA connections through “secret testimonies” and the ties with the so-called Fethullah Terrorist Organisation.

Public figures such as Nadim Sener, a columnist for a pro-government newspaper in Turkey, appeared on television to talk about the claims as if they were “serious” possibilities. Eventually, during the October 12 trial, the state’s secret witnesses withdrew their statements.

Two years were stolen from a man by absurd claims made by a couple of men whose names and identities were kept confidential.

The Brunson trial was a reflection for what has been happening in Turkey, particularly since the failed coup attempt, after which hundreds of journalists and tens of thousands of people, including activists and leaders of civil society organisations, have been thrown into prison.

If we exclude the Nadim Seners who go on Turkish television to declare Brunson an operative and speak nonsense that even a level-headed 18-year-old could figure out, no one took the indictments seriously. The clownishness was on display but this circus show, in which thousands of similar lawsuits in Turkey didn’t stick, attracted the attention of the world, showing the miserable state of the Turkish judicial system.

Another result was a major blow to the credibility of the Turkish state and government. For instance, following the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkish authorities claimed that a Saudi squad flew to Istanbul to carry out the assassination. Officials in Washington have started to say, “Yes, what the Turks say is reasonable but how can we believe a government that has been lying to us for a long time?”

Consequently, everyone has witnessed how a government stole two years from a pious man who has lived in Turkey for 23 years and by one that is described as religious and conservative. The credibility of the government that has stood behind such a laughable indictment over this religious man and that has repeated this for two years is at a low.

The sixth outcome is that relations between Turkey and the United States have not improved. The United States expanded its target in Syria and is determined to shatter Iran’s influence. This means that the US-backed coalition in north-eastern Syria will continue to support the Syrian Kurds, and, of course, deeply disturb Erdogan.

Perhaps the United States will increase its aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, whom the Erdogan administration considers a terrorist organisation.

When the Turkish side complained about the failure of the United States to stick to the Manbij agreement to clear the city of SDF forces within 90 days, the United States appeared to not be taking it seriously.

Unless the Russian deal for S-400 surface-to-air missile air defence batteries is broken, it seems unlikely that US-made F-35 stealth fighters will be sent to Turkey.

Also, the 6-month warning period by the United States to end oil imports from Iran expires in the first week of November when there will be a resumption of negotiations and pressure over sanctions on Iran.

Economically, Brunson’s release will not bring relief to Turkey. Trump’s response about whether the administration had plans to lift sanctions on Turkey drew attention when he said, “It has nothing to do with that.”

Turkish media outlets close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) continued to attack Brunson on October 12, identifying him as an “agent.” In the AKP media, Trump and the United States are still enemies.

None of this provides hope that there’s a thawing of chilly relations between Trump and Erdogan.

The eighth outcome is that Trump got the better of the deal from this situation. With midterm elections nearing in the United States, when considering that Trump’s base consists largely of 55 million-60 million Evangelical voters Trump’s win is another reason to send his supporters to the polls. He can easily say to his base “look how much I tried and fought for your preacher.”

Trump is trying not to lose the Republican Party’s majority in Congress — both in the Senate and House of Representatives — and he continues making campaign speeches because the Democrats could make his life much harder if they control one or both houses of Congress.

Finally, the Brunson case could be positive for the Erdogan administration in the short term if it prevents Trump’s attacks and angry tweets. For a while, there won’t be tension between Turkey and the United States. The Turkish markets, which are yearning for stability, will be able to breathe a bit.

Will this relatively good mood between Washington and Ankara last until the beginning of November and the end of the Iranian embargo become a better relationship? There is no reason to be optimistic.

(This article published initially by Reprinted with permission.)