Brunson case: What will Erdoğan do?

The case of American Andrew Brunson, jailed in Turkey on flimsy terrorism charges, has been burning like a slow fuse for almost two years, but flared up last week with U.S. President Donald Trump threatening Turkey with “large sanctions” unless it freed the evangelical pastor “immediately.”

Two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he expected “good news” soon about Brunson, but a week later a court in Izmir, instead of freeing the pastor, who has spent more than 20 years in Turkey, transferred him to house arrest.

A day later, Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence responded with the threat of sanctions.

The Washington Post said Trump had made a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for Turkey to free Brunson in exchange for Israel releasing a Turkish woman held accused of channelling funds to Hamas. But after the Turkish woman was sent back to Turkey, the newspaper said Turkey reneged on its part of the deal

“There are so many stories swirling around the Brunson negotiations that we can't really be sure what happened yet,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the POMED, “However, I think Erdoğan was expecting more for Brunson's release than was realistically possible.”

Erdoğan flatly denied that Brunson was ever part of a deal, but it was the Turkish president himself who raised the possibility of exchanging the pastor for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Turkish preacher that Turkey blames for ordering the 2016 failed military coup. It was Erdoğan’s suggestion that led to accusations that he was pursuing “hostage diplomacy”.

“His insinuation of a swap of Brunson for Gülen certainly suggests such a dynamic,” said Lisel Hintz, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University. “But Brunson’s arrest doesn’t seem to have been initially undertaken with such motives in mind. It is more likely that he fell into Erdoğan’s lap as a valuable pawn.”

The Brunson case is only one of many issues between the United States and Turkey, including Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles and U.S. support for Kurdish YPG forces in Syria.

“Negotiations between the United States and Turkey on the Brunson case, as well as on the YPG, S-400, and other critical issues have been hampered by domestic and bureaucratic politics on both sides,” said Hintz. “Miscommunication from multiple levels on the U.S. side reinforced Erdoğan’s already deeply suspicious views of the U.S., particularly post-coup attempt.”

“The current crisis could have been avoided had the U.S. made clear where the red lines were and placed clear costs to them,” said Eissenstat. “It simply did not do that.”

The U.S. Congress last week agreed to insert a clause into the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would block the sale of F-35 advanced fighter jets to Turkey depending on the state of U.S.-Turkey relations. Defence experts warn that if Turkey were to deploy F-35s and S-400s, the Russian air defence system would be able to collect data on the flagship NATO jet. “The U.S. got Erdoğan’s attention by linking Brunson’s name to the F-35 deal, but in doing so also raised the stakes, demonstrating how much it values the pastor’s return,” said Hintz. “It is the conundrum of many diplomatic negotiations, particularly those among countries whose leaders despise being seen as weak or conciliatory.”

Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said both sides should step back from megaphone diplomacy.

“U.S.-Turkey relations are at an inflection point. It is important that leaders on both sides return to diplomatic negotiations rather than escalating rhetoric,” she said.

Analysts disagree on the best course of action, with many advocating a tough line, pointing out that Turkey backed down in the face of Russian sanctions after Turkish jets downed a Russian warplane over the Syrian border in 2015. But the Brunson case may be different.

“I suspect that a fight so direct and so public limits Erdoğan’s options,” said Eissenstat. “Moreover, there are so many other outstanding issues between the U.S. and Turkey that I suspect he would see showing weakness now as undermining him on other, more strategically vital issues.”

Erdoğan dismissed U.S. threats as “psychological warfare” and his National Security Council vowed not to back down.

But with an economy suffering from high inflation and a weak currency, Turkey is vulnerable to sanctions. Several measures against Turkey are pending.

Sanctions could be applied through the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which are imposed on countries engaged in energy and defence deals with Moscow. These would apply if Turkey completes the S-400 deal.

The NDAA could bar Turkey from the F-35 programme.

The U.S. Senate has proposed a bill directing the U.S. executive of the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to oppose future loans to Turkey “until the Turkish government ends the unjust detention of U.S. citizens”.

The U.S. Treasury could also fine Turkish state-owned Halkbank for its part in laundering funds in a scheme to evade previous sanctions on Iran.

“Given the current weakness of the Turkish economy, these measures could have a significant impact domestically and may limit Ankara’s room for manoeuvre in response,” Sloat said. “Despite the rhetoric, Erdoğan does not have many particularly good options.”

Despite the repeated assertions from Turkish leaders that their justice system is independent and the Brunson case is therefore out of their hands, the outcome of the issue depends on Erdoğan.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.