Plenty of U.S.-Turkey Tension Remains Even After Pastor's Return

(Bloomberg) -- Turkey’s release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson settles an issue that pushed ties between the countries to new lows. But there are plenty of unresolved tensions that continue to undermine relations between the two NATO allies.

Brunson’s return home after almost two years in prison and house arrest after Friday’s decision by a Turkish court. The evangelical pastor’s case was championed by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, among others. Brunson and his family met with President Donald Trump on Saturday at the Oval Office.

Plenty of U.S.-Turkey Tension Remains Even After Pastor's Return

Turkey had charged Brunson with aiding people involved in a failed 2016 coup against Erdogan, accusations the U.S. rejected.
Brunson, 50, left Turkey late on Friday and made a brief stop in Germany for a medical checkup before continuing on to Washington.

‘No Deal’

“He suffered greatly but we’re very appreciative to a lot of people,” the president said Friday in Cincinnati on his way to a campaign rally.

On Saturday, Trump declared repeatedly -- on Twitter, and later at the White House meeting -- that there’d been no deal to secure Brunson’s release. “I don’t make deals for hostages,” he tweeted. “There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States.”

Erdogan later tweeted that the country’s judiciary decided independently on the Brunson ruling, and looked forward to better bilateral relations and a “common struggle” against terrorist organizations including Islamic State.

Trump’s frustration over Brunson’s continued detention became the dominant issue between the U.S. and Turkey in recent months. It prompted the U.S. leader to double metal tariffs on Turkey in August, fueling a weakening of the lira, and impose financial sanctions on key Erdogan aides involved in the pastor’s case.

Saturday’s comment on potentially “good, perhaps great relations” raises hopes those measures will be reversed -- but there was nothing firm on the subject from Trump during the White House meeting.

“This had to happen for things to just hold,” said Max Hoffman, associate director for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “If he hadn’t been released there were going to be new sanctions or additional sanctions and the tailspin would continue. So at least we’ve stopped the deterioration.”

A court in Izmir convicted Brunson and sentenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in jail but lifted all judicial controls and released him after accounting for penalty reductions and time served. He’d been transferred to house arrest in July because of poor health, and U.S. officials had expected him to be freed then, to no avail.

No Backing Down

The standoff between Trump and Erdogan, two leaders known for not wanting to back down publicly, had appeared to be at a stalemate. But one analyst suggested the economic cost to Turkey made the dispute untenable.

“Given how fragile Turkey’s economy is, Erdogan knows this will reflect positively on the Turkish economy and the currency,” said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “That could be the payoff -- avoiding further political and economic problems.”

Officials have hoped Brunson’s release could serve as a catalyst for improving ties between Turkey and the U.S. Turkey has played a key role in the fight against Islamic State in neighboring Syria and has the second-biggest military in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Grievances Remain

Yet significant grievances remain. Erdogan hasn’t stepped back from plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, the S-400, that isn’t compatible with NATO requirements. That has fueled demands in the U.S. that planned deliveries of F-35 jets be put on hold even though portions of the Lockheed Martin Co. fighter are being built in Turkey.

In addition, at least three other people detained in Turkey have attracted Washington’s attention and fueled strains. They include NASA scientist Serkan Golge and three Turkish employees of the U.S. mission to Turkey. The U.S. says they’re innocent.

“We remain deeply concerned about the continued detention of other United States citizens in Turkey and around the world, and urge the resolution of all these cases in a transparent and fair manner,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement welcoming Brunson’s release.

Lira’s Fall

“While we are relieved by today’s decision on Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention, we remain concerned for the Turkish people," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement on Friday. “Turkey must continue to work to treat all of its citizens equally and with respect for their religious freedom."

Before Brunson’s release, Turkish officials had been seeking meetings with the U.S. to negotiate a resolution to his case and other issues, but National Security Adviser John Bolton declared in August that no such talks would proceed until Brunson was let go. In the meantime, Turkey’s lira continued its fall, losing about 25 percent of its value in August alone.

While Trump said no concessions were made to Turkey to secure Brunson’s release, the question is whether the U.S. will move on its own to ease sanctions imposed in recent months that have added to the difficulties facing the country’s economy.

From Turkey’s side, the U.S. hasn’t shown any movement toward meeting Erdogan’s long-standing demand to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a prominent Turkish cleric living in exile in the U.S. whom Erdogan has blamed for the coup. Gulen denies involvement in the coup attempt.

Bank Executive

Also outstanding: the fate of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Halkbank executive sentenced to prison in the U.S. for violating Iran sanctions. Erdogan has ridiculed the conviction and called for Atilla to be set free.

But Brunson’s release eliminates an embarrassing, if temporary, defeat for Trump, who believed he had an agreement with Erdogan for the pastor to be released months ago, only to see it fall apart. It shows that despite continuing grievances, the two countries can overcome their mutual suspicion in some cases.

The move also hands Trump a victory that will be favorably viewed by his evangelical political base ahead of midterm elections next month. And it allows the president to focus more on another escalating foreign policy crisis: relations with Saudi Arabia after the disappearance, and possible murder, of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.