Updated: Dec 16, 2019
On October 12, 2018, a Turkish court freed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson whose arrest on terrorism charges just over two years ago had fueled a diplomatic crisis. Since July, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had collectively tweeted about Brunson’s case almost two dozen times. Even in hyper-partisan Washington, Brunson’s plight received bipartisan support.
In a quiet meeting only later disclosed, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) met President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to lobby for Brunson’s release. Brunson’s release reportedly comes after a deal negotiated by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which the United States promised to relieve economic pressure on Turkey upon Brunson’s release.
With Brunson home and with Ankara and Washington seemingly on the same side in their condemnation of the apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, could relations between the United States and Turkey finally be on the rebound? The answer is no. While the immediate crisis is over, not only Brunson’s detention, but also the circumstances of his release may compound the many remaining bilateral disputes.
Brunson’s case may be over but, from origin to resolution, it put a spotlight on rot in Turkey’s politics and judiciary. After Turkish security forces arrested Brunson, he was held without charge for almost 18 months. Erdoğan made little secret of his desire to use Brunson as a bargaining chip to compel extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric and a one-time Erdoğan ally turned rival whom Erdoğan blames for the abortive 2016 coup.
Turkish prosecutors eventually charged Brunson not only with supporting Gülen but, perhaps because the notion that an evangelical preacher could belong to an Islamist movement was ridiculous on its face, prosecutors subsequently charged Brunson with secretly helping the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish group which has led a decades-long insurgency against Turkey. (Full disclosure: they have issued an arrest warrant for me as well, equating my history of criticism of Erdoğan with involvement in the coup.)
As pressure mounted on Turkey, Erdoğan took umbrage. “We don’t know what the court will decide and politicians will have no say on the verdict,” he argued. This, of course, was nonsense. Faced with sanctions and an eroding currency, Erdoğan gave in. He carefully choreographed Brunson’s release. State witnesses recanted stories. Cars were ready to whisk Brunson away, and a plane was waiting at the airport. The whole episode showed Turkey’s judiciary to be a joke.
This of course should be no surprise. Prior to the abortive 2016 coup attempt, which Erdoğan subsequently called a “gift from God,” Erdoğan’s government exposed two other alleged coup plots—the so-called Ergenekon and Balyoz [Sledgehammer] conspiracies. Both resulted in the arrests of hundreds of people, but both ultimately turned out to be based on equally fictional evidence.
After Erdoğan accused Gülen of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt, Turkish authorities forwarded reams of documents purporting to prove his complicity. These outlined Gülen’s shadowy network, but none proved his involvement. With the Brunson case further exposing how Turkish security forces manufacture witnesses and evidence, it is unlikely the U.S. judiciary—which is truly independent—will recognize further Turkish evidence.
Indeed, using the Brunson case as a window should only raise further questions about whether the entire Erdoğan narrative about the July 2016 coup is real or imaginary: Did the Turkish military really try to oust Erdoğan? Or was it the Turkish equivalent of the Reichstag fire?
Then there is the case of other detainees. When the Obama administration cut a deal with Iran to release Americans held in Iran or by Iranian proxies, they left one man—Bob Levinson—behind. Likewise, Brunson’s freedom now highlights the cases of those still in Turkish custody such as NASA scientist Serkan Golge, the Turkish case against whom is just as arbitrary as was Brunson’s.
Nor does Brunson’s release do anything to address broader security concerns. Can Erdoğan, who is pivoting Turkey toward Russia and so transparently seeks to coerce concession, really be trusted with the top secret technology within the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? Already, in fits of pique, Erdoğan or his inner circle leaked the identities of Israeli nuclear spies to Iran and betrayed the location and supplies of U.S. forces in Syria.
Finally, U.S. forces continue to partner with Syrian Kurds in order to prevent the return of the Islamic State. The Turkish government considers Syrian Kurds to be terrorists although, once again, the standards of evidence the Brunson trial exposed should raise questions about how seriously the United States should take Erdoğan complaints that weapons provided to Syrian Kurdish forces are smuggled back into Turkey to wage terrorism.
Prior to occupying Afrin in Syria and pushing Kurdish forces out (and perhaps Kurdish civilians as well), for example, Ankara was hard-pressed to attribute a single terrorist incident to the region.
Both Democrats and Republicans worked hardtop bring Brunson home, and both can celebrate his release. But any optimism that Brunson’s return can mean a revitalization of U.S.-Turkey relations does not understand: The problem was never just Brunson, but rather any regime which could perpetrate such an injustice.