The pastor, the banker, and the irresistible drama in Turkish-US relations

The Turkish-US relationship is either experiencing its first serious fissure since 1975, or just another bump in the road. No one can be sure.

US President Donald Trump once looked to be Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s biggest fan, uttering at a recent NATO summit: “I like him, I like him.” No longer.

This week, the US Treasury announced sanctions on two Turkish ministers over the case of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been in jail for 21 months and who has been the subject of months of secret negotiations between Ankara and Washington.

Although the move is symbolic – given the plethora of bilateral disputes between the sides and Turkey’s drift away from liberal Western norms – the Trump administration’s decision could become a historic milestone for Turkey’s position in the West.

Nonetheless, in the unpredictable global environment we live in and with volatile leaders on both sides, it is also possible that this will end up being a detour in relations between the two long-time allies. As happened with Russia after the Turkish air force downed a Russian fighter jet in 2015, and with Germany following the Turkish authorities’ arrest of two dozen German citizens last summer, this crisis might blow over in seven or eight months, leading first to a thaw and then to normalisation.

Still, the events of this week are momentous – the first serious fissure between Ankara and Washington since the 1975 US arms embargo on Turkey following the Turkish incursion into Cyprus. Using the Magnitsky Act, the Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Turkish Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gül and Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu, designating them “leaders of Turkish government organizations responsible for implementing Turkey’s serious human rights abuses” – and, as such, accountable for the decision to persecute Brunson on trumped-up charges.

It is troubling, if not unusual, for Turkish prosecutors to come up with wild accusations against foreign detainees

Brunson has been living in Turkey for 23 years, running a small protestant church in Izmir. He was caught up in Turkey’s massive dragnet after the coup attempt, accused of “supporting terrorism” – as most foreign nationals detained during that period were – by way of his alleged links with both the Gülen movement and Kurdish separatists. It took more than a year for the authorities to produce an indictment – which turned out to be a jumble of espionage charges, secret testimonies, allegations of links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and local Gülenists, and an insidious plot to create an independent “Kurdistan” through the Christianisation of Syrian-Kurdish immigrants. A pro-government newspaper even claimed that, had the coup attempt been successful, Brunson would have been appointed as director of the CIA.

It is troubling, if not unusual, for Turkish prosecutors to come up with wild accusations against foreign detainees. The practice reflects, above all, the emergence of a deeply paranoid security state that senses a threat from, as opposed to camaraderie with, Turkey’s traditional Western allies. German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel and human rights activist Peter Steudtner were similarly accused of “aiding an armed terrorist group”. The perception that the American “deep state” is behind the coup attempt and is harbouring Fethullah Gülen – a US-based cleric whose supporters played a leading role in the event – has now become the standard view in the Turkish bureaucracy. Turkey’s new national security ideology casts suspicion on foreigners, human rights activists, journalists, and liberal-leaning non-governmental organisations for knowingly or unknowingly participating in an effort to weaken or destroy Turkey.

But Brunson’s case is unique because his name has emerged as a rallying cry for the evangelical community in the United States – ultimately making the fate of the Presbyterian pastor a key issue in the strained Turkish-US relationship. When Erdogan held his first official meeting with Trump in Washington in May 2016, the White House organised a prayer vigil calling for Brunson’s release. Trump brought up the case three times during a luncheon with Erdogan that day and during subsequent phone conversations with Erdogan. Meanwhile, Congress has held hearings on the case and referred to Brunson in various legislative bills on Turkey. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Trump supporters such as Jay Sekulow – an attorney on the president’s legal team who leads the American Center for Law and Justice – have all been involved in the Brunson saga. In this way, demands for Brunson’s release have become a permanent fixture in Turkey’s messy alliance with Washington.

Of course, the alliance is no less steady than a tired marriage mired in bickering and a litany of mutual grievances. Ankara has never quite forgiven Washington for not handing over Gülen. Turkey also objects to US support for Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK in the fight against the Islamic State group (ISIS). On top of this, the Turkish president has lashed out at the prosecution of Halkbank executive Hakan Atilla in a New York court case concerning the evasion of US sanctions on Iran. As Halkbank is one of Turkey’s largest state banks, Ankara fears that a US Treasury fine on the institution would trigger a domino effect in the Turkish financial system, at a time when the economy is experiencing a serious downturn.

In Trump, Ankara once had a sympathetic ear. From the get-go, the US president seemed eager to build a good relationship with Turkey’s strongman leader. This accorded with the prevailing view of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, which continues to believe that it is important to keep Turkey anchored to the West. However, Erdogan’s anti-Western rhetoric, poor human rights record, and decision to purchase Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems have all made it harder for American friends of Turkey to make the case for improved relations. US officials have publicly warned that Turkey’s purchase of S-400s would jeopardise NATO’s defences and could result in US sanctions. Meanwhile, Congress has introduced legislation that threatens to block the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and also discusses the case of Brunson and Turkey’s imprisonment of US citizens and consular employees. (Several other US citizens, and two Turkish citizens who are US consular employees, remain in custody in Turkey; a third remains under house arrest.)

One of the most dispiriting aspects of all this is that Turkey’s hostage diplomacy sometimes works. Ankara’s decision to return Yücel to Germany has led to the normalisation of relations with Berlin and ended an unofficial German embargo on arms sales to Turkey.

The deal was simple. But it failed.

In the case of Brunson, the idea of a prisoner swap came into the bilateral agenda sometime in early 2017. That year, Erdogan suggested that Brunson could be exchanged for Gülen: “You have a priest and we have one. Give us the priest and take this one.” While many Americans saw Erdogan’s suggestion of a swap as outrageous, US officials quietly started exploring the idea of exchanging Brunson for initially Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold dealer involved in the Atilla case, and later Atilla himself. (Legal treaties between Turkey and the US would allow Washington to transfer Atilla to Turkey to serve the rest of his sentence.)

In return for quietly releasing the pastor at a court hearing last month, Ankara would likely have secured the transfer of the Turkish banker. The deal was simple. But it failed.

US sources suggest that Turkey added a demand at the last minute regarding Halkbank – asking for leniency in paying a US Treasury fine on the bank, and for there to be no new indictment. Turkish sources privately claim there never was an officially sanctioned deal on Brunson and publicly state that the judiciary is independent. 

Last week, the Turkish courts released Brunson from jail and put him under house arrest at his home in Izmir. But Washington saw this as a half-measure. Both Trump and Pence took to Twitter to threaten sanctions if Brunson was not released. US officials continued quietly looking into the possibility of using the Magnitsky Act to penalise Ankara.

This drama even includes an Israeli sideshow. In expectation of Brunson’s release, Trump reached out to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to ask for the release of Turkish activist Ebru Ozkan, who Israel jailed for allegedly aiding Hamas. The 27-year-old was released on 11 June, the day after Trump’s call. Erdogan has recently acknowledged as much, but said this week that Turkey never entertained the idea of a direct swap for Brunson. In a meeting this week, Turkey’s National Security Council said that “threatening” rhetoric against Turkey was “unacceptable.” 

Even in difficult marriages, divorce is not an easy choice. In the case of Turkish-US relations, there have always been considerations and strategic imperatives that prevented harsh measures against Ankara – such as Washington’s reliance on Incirlik Air Base, and goals of keeping Turkey out of Russia’s arms and maintaining an important NATO alliance in the Middle East.

But the mood in Washington seemed to change very fast this week. Following Trump’s threat of “large sanctions” on Turkey, Turkish officials attempted a quiet diplomacy with the US, offering to release Brunson at his next hearing in October. However, they appear to have misjudged Washington’s patience with the matter, as the sanctions announced this week suggest.

It is hard to predict how long this saga will continue but, as one US official noted, “this is just the beginning [of US measures]. Brunson must be released in the end.” Meanwhile, the knotty set of problems in the Turkey-US relationship – from S-400s to Syrian Kurds, F-35s, and the Halkbank fine – have all somehow become intertwined, with Brunson at the centre of it all.

As was the case with Russia and Germany, these crises tend to escalate before secret negotiations start to normalise the relationship. Typically, the sides kiss and make up.

It is possible that, in seven or eight months, Brunson will be sitting in his home in North Carolina, Atilla will be back in Turkey, and Trump will be raving about Erdogan on Twitter once again. But it is also possible that Turkey will become the next Venezuela, clashing with the West and dealing with a dire economic downturn. No one can be sure.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.