Undoubtedly for Ankara, the two most vital questions in Turkish-American relations are the U.S.’s partnership with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the status of Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, the prime suspect of the July 2016 coup attempt according to Ankara.
For Washington, the priority shifted dramatically following the arrests of foreign service nationals (FSN) in the two U.S. consulates in Turkey on accusations of links to either the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or what Ankara refers to as the Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ).
The Trump administration is desperately looking for a way to push Ankara to release the FSNs and nearly a dozen U.S. nationals in custody in Turkey. It wants to achieve that without introducing sanctions, which would likely bring ties between the two countries to total collapse. U.S. diplomats are worried that any sanctions that harm Turkish citizens more than the Turkish government (like last year’s visa suspension) would only worsen anti-American sentiments, which are already at alarming levels.
Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been jailed in İzmir since December 2016 over alleged links to FETÖ, has become the symbolic name of the wave of arrests in Turkey and has received considerable attention from U.S. lawmakers. But for the State Department the situation of detained FSNs is probably equally or more important. The fact that a number of local employees at U.S. missions in Turkey are now considering leaving their jobs is certainly a sore point for the Americans. Local employees are sine qua non for the U.S. missions, and until recently it was never common for Turks to fear working for U.S. missions.
U.S. diplomacy refrains from bringing the FSNs in Turkish prisons into public debate because of concerns about jeopardizing any possible progress. But Brunson’s case has received considerable attention in U.S. media outlets due to the evangelical community.
People working on the Brunson file in the U.S. believe that a formula similar to one that made the release of Die Welt journalist Deniz Yücel possible – following intense negotiations between Ankara and Berlin – can be found for Brunson. U.S. diplomats believe, or rather want to believe, that they can leverage the work of the joint mechanism, established between Turkey and the U.S. primarily to solve the Manbij puzzle, to try to persuade Ankara to release Brunson.
That is why the State Department has found it crucial to stall the Congress’ intention to introduce a list of sanctions targeting certain Turkish officials in retaliation for the continued jailing of Brunson. But it is unlikely that the brakes put on the U.S. Congress will be able to hold for a long time.
A few days ago my colleague Dion Nissenbaum penned an important report in the Wall Street Journal that quoted a Senate aide familiar with Brunson’s case as saying that “despite the fact that the Turks have an almost 100 percent track record of responding positively to sticks, we still feed them carrots.” As cruel it sounds, that unfortunately reflects the general mood on Capitol Hill. It is only a matter of time until this mood turns into concrete actions aimed at punishing Ankara.
We learned from the Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee chair Volkan Bozkır during his visit to Washington two weeks ago that Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina would visit Brunson in prison. That visit apparently took place last week. The State Department, which was encouraged by the authorizations cleared by Ankara for Tillis, is now pushing for a new visit. Washington wants to send U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback to Brunson’s first court hearing, which is set for April 16. There is thus intense diplomacy underway to secure necessary permissions from Turkish officials to let Brownback follow the trial in the İzmir courtroom.
If Brownback can make it to Turkey, then putting Brunson on the plane returning to the U.S. with him after the court hearing would likely be everyone’s dream in Washington.