President Donald J. Trump‘s plea for the release of an imprisoned American pastor in Turkey has fallen victim to arcane rules of diplomatic tug-of-war, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey shutting down the prospect of the pastor’s release since Ankara’s demands over a number of thorny issues went unheeded.
In a veiled criticism of President Trump, the Turkish leader rebuffed his request for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson who had been jailed over alleged links to the Gulen movement, a claim consistently denied by his family and the U.S. authorities. The Gulen movement is a Muslim organization.
“President Trump raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish Government expeditiously return him to the United States,” the White House said in a statement following a meeting between the American and Turkish presidents last month. He was possibly hoping to bring the pastor back home, scoring a similar political victory by securing the release of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian aid worker locked up by the Egyptian regime.
On Thursday, President Erdogan’s response could not be blunter: No. He explained the reason of refusal after expounding at great length over what he says “double standards” of the Western countries, including the U.S., with regards to cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Those who skip the issue by citing judicial independence in their country when Turkey had certain demands over terrorists, Mr. Erdogan argued, ignore the same principle when they have similar demands from Turkey.
“… We have our citizen in prison in your country, give him to us,” Mr. Erdogan quoted Mr. Trump, in a mocking way. “First give us the chief terrorist who is not in prison,” the Turkish president fumed in apparent indignation, citing U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by the Turkish authorities of orchestrating last summer’s failed putsch. Mr. Gulen denies any involvement.
The extradition of Mr. Gulen remains to be a source of enduring friction in relations between NATO allies. He accused the U.S. of harboring Mr. Gulen by providing him “400 acres of land” from where the Turkish cleric is managing affairs of his movement in 170 countries.
What most jarred the Turkish president was, as he said, the American authorities’ deference of the matter to the independent judiciary where the final decision to be made about extradition of the cleric if such procedure ever takes place. Mr. Erdogan even struck a threatening tone and went on to say that everything will be reciprocal between the U.S. and Turkey from now on. “You have [independent] judiciary? So, do we.”
Pointing the judiciary whenever this case comes up, Mr. Erdogan said, “undermines our trust.”
His remarks suggest that Mr. Trump’s demand for the release of the American pastor will less likely happen given the current state of affairs in relations. Any Turkish gesture seems to be depended on a similar American move to satisfy Ankara. And any change of heart appears as difficult as ever.
Trump-Erdogan Honeymoon Is Over
But the tone of Mr. Erdogan’s rhetoric against the Trump’s administration was unprecedented. For months, President of Turkey has been treading a careful balancing act to curry the favor of the new Trump administration over expectations for a reset in strained relations. To lift spirits high and keep hopes aloof, President Erdogan steered clear of any criticism of scandal-buffeted Mr. Trump even when the American president attempted to impose a ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries at early days of his nascent presidency in January.
On Thursday, however, Mr. Erdogan blasted the State Department for breaking the tradition of hosting fast-breaking iftar dinner for Muslims. “You weren’t for discrimination, you were not against freedom of religion — what happened to those?” Mr. Erdogan asked rhetorically, adding that the Ankara’s view of Washington is shifting based on these actions. “We look at what you do, not what you say.”
But after his palpably unsuccessful visit to Washington, D.C., last month to sink differences regarding how to resolve the Syrian conflict, and more importantly, over U.S. cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish militia, the Turkish president again molded a contrarian line of approach towards the White House, adopting disparaging remarks unseen recently.
Until yesterday, President Erdogan spared the Trump White House from his scathing criticism but now extended his fire to all of the American administration for their enduring support to “terrorist PYD” and its military wing YPG.
Arming Syrian Kurds A Divisive Matter
In a public display of frustration over “the U.S. indifference” to the Turkish concerns, President Erdogan underscored that the cooperation between the two NATO allies would proceed on a reciprocal basis. He also hinted a more unilateral, freewheeling approach in Syrian theater where competing strategies and agendas put two countries on a collision course more often than not.
On Thursday, Turkey’s top security council said arming Syrian Kurdish fighters is “not befitting to the alliance” between Turkey and the U.S.
Undaunted by the prospect of a diplomatic standoff with Turkey, the U.S. announced its decision to directly arm the Kurdish forces in Syria last month at the same time of a visit by the Turkish army and intelligence chiefs to Washington. Days later, President Erdogan’s trip followed. But whatever the Turkish side expected from high-level talks with the Trump administration, it did nothing to budge White House in its position.
And the unyielding U.S. stance with regards to Kurds has become the focal point of Turkey’s simmering protest. As the U.S. began to deliver weapons and ammunition to Kurdish YPG, Mr. Erdogan ramped up his bellicose remarks, castigating the U.S. administration for aiding a “terrorist organization.”
He signaled that Turkey would act alone in Syria without any regard for reaction from Washington, vowing to hit the Kurdish militia in case of a threat from Kurds over the border.
Another theme during his speech was a Turkish-Iranian businessman with close ties to the Erdogan family.
The case of Reza Zarrab has emerged as a new source of flashpoint between the two countries. Mr. Erdogan’s keen interest in the trial in a Manhattan court stems from the fact that he believes he has a personal stake in the case. His detractors suggest that Mr. Erdogan has genuine fears of the repercussions of the trial if Mr. Zarrab is convicted of breaching U.S. sanctions against Iran through manipulating U.S. financial system.
Mr. Zarrab had been arrested in a high-profile corruption scandal in late 2013 back in Turkey. The investigation prompted Mr. Erdogan, then a prime minister, to launch his first purge in police and judiciary to kill off the case.
He held Mr. Gulen’s sympathizers in the police and judiciary responsible for attempting to unseat him through the corruption probe that involved his family members, close associates, cabinet ministers and Mr. Zarrab.
He asked the U.S. authorities to release Mr. Zarrab. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a campaign surrogate for Mr. Trump, joined the legal team to represent the Turkish businessman at upcoming hearings.
Mr. Giuliani visited Turkey and met with the Turkish president about the ways to broker a diplomatic solution to end the prosecution. His involvement spurred media attention, while the prospect of a political settlement quickly faded away after news reports.