Pastor freed after presssures but US-Turkey rift widens over Syria
ISTANBUL - Turkey has solved a major political row with the United States by freeing an evangelical pastor but is facing mounting differences with Washington over Syria.
A court in Aliaga, near the Aegean city of Izmir, sentenced Pastor Andrew Brunson, a missionary from North Carolina, to more than 3 years in prison on October 12 but also ruled that the 50-year-old cleric could return home because he had served 2 years in pre-trial detention. Brunson left Turkey on a US military plane only hours after the verdict.
The ruling ended a trial that involved bizarre accusations that Brunson helped coup plotters and Kurdish rebels through his little church in Izmir and saw an extraordinary final day of proceedings, in which one witness after another withdrew his statements against the American.
Analysts said the court acted on the wishes of the Turkish leadership that wanted the row with the United States to end.
Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history at St Lawrence University and non-resident senior fellow at the non-partisan Project on Middle East Democracy, said the Brunson case had been “hostage diplomacy from start to finish.”
The Trump administration strongly pushed for Brunson’s release amid reports of a deal between Ankara and Washington. Trump denied there was such an agreement but the tone of Turkish statements about Brunson changed considerably in the days before the verdict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had verbally attacked Brunson publicly, distanced himself from the trial by saying he had to respect the court’s decision.
Details of a suspected deal between the two governments were unclear. Eissenstat wrote: “Did the Trump administration give anything away to win Brunson’s release and, if so, what?”
The Brunson verdict strengthened hopes in Turkey that the United States would cancel its sanctions and thereby provide a shot in the arm for Ankara’s ailing economy. The Turkish lira firmed against the US dollar even before the decision.
Gonul Tol, director of the Centre for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said Brunson’s release showed that “playing hardball with Erdogan pays off.” The decision “will clear [the] air between Trump and Erdogan, which might help negotiations on other issues,” Tol wrote in an e-mail.
She warned, however, that Turkey had less room to manoeuvre in other areas.
One issue that is likely to be more difficult is Syria. Turkey is angry about US support for the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-Kurdish militia that is Washington’s most important on-the-ground ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
With the help of US backing, Syrian Kurds have established a region of self-rule close to the Turkish border. Turkey says the YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish rebel group that has been fighting against Ankara since 1984 and is seen as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the United States.
The rift over the YPG has poisoned Turkish-US relations and is one reason Turkey has been seeking closer ties with Russia, the main military power in Syria. US officials warned Turkey against following through with a plan to buy a Russian missile defence system.
Even while Turkish diplomats were hoping for better days in relations with the United States because of the resolution of the Brunson case, the spat over Syria worsened.
Erdogan, on the day of the Brunson verdict, told an audience that YPG fighters were ignoring a US-Turkish agreement that calls for Kurdish troops to leave the northern Syrian town of Manbij.
“They are now digging trenches in Manbij. What does this mean? It means ‘We’ve prepared the graves, come and bury us’,” Erdogan said at a rally in southern Turkey. “They said they would abandon the area in 90 days but they haven’t. We will do what is necessary.”
The Turkish leader repeated warnings that Turkey would send soldiers into Syria to drive the YPG out of areas east of the Euphrates River, a region that has been off limits for the Turks because of the presence of about 2,000 US military personnel there.
By promising action against “terror nests east of the Euphrates,” Erdogan suggested that the Turkish Army could start another incursion into northern Syria. Turkish troops have been deployed in Jarabulus, Afrin and Idlib.
The pro-government media in Turkey reported that preparations were underway to drive the YPG from the border in the towns of Kobane, Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ayn and Qamishli. One pro-Erdogan newspaper reported that Turkish soldiers would establish a “safe zone” stretching east of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border 50-60km into Syria from Turkish territory.