Are We Headed For A US-Turkey “Fresh Start” After Brunson’s Release?

The FT editorial board says the time is ripe for rapprochement between the US and Turkey as Pastor Andrew Brunson, freed after two years of under Turkish captivity on charges of espionage, found himself sitting in the Oval Office across from President Trump less than a mere 24 hours after his release. 

Is it time for a “fresh start” as FT suggests

The freeing of the American pastor, who had been charged with espionage, ends a high-profile stand-off between the US and Turkey. It also provides an important opportunity to make a fresh start in the crucial relationship between Washington and Ankara. Turkey and the US matter to each other. For Washington, Turkey is an important member of Nato and a neighbour of Syria. It is a traditional ally of the US and has played a vital role in absorbing millions of Syrian refugees.

No doubt Turkey would welcome it, as its economy was left reeling this summer as its relationship with Washington hit a low point, sending the lira into a death spiral, but the fact remains that it’s also a NATO ally which did more than any other to create that very refugee crisis in the first place.

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Turkey has indeed played a “vital role” in the crisis, as FT suggests, but more in the way of being both “arsonist” and “firefighter” as during most of the seven year long Syrian proxy war it used its border as the largest “jihadi highway” in modern history, facilitating the movement of al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists into Syria to fight the Assad government.

And of course, the United States was a key partner in this — as Joe Biden all but spelled out while speaking at Harvard in 2015 — when he blamed “US allies” including Turkey for the rise of the Islamic State. This is likely the reason why the White House has never fully and adequately called President Erdogan to account as a state sponsor of terror — simply put, each side probably has too much dirt on the other

For the FT editorial board and the rest of the MSM, these established facts have long been ignored and swept aside, even though now fully acknowledged even within establishment academia

But if Washington gets a “close regional ally” in a Middle East region where its regime change and imperialist ambitions have not changed, the Turks themselves also get an “insurance policy” by healing ties with the US. FT continues:

For the Turks themselves, a close relationship with America is an important strategic insurance policy in a volatile region. But the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016 set off a train of events that threatened the US-Turkish alliance. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the coup attempt on the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious leader based in the US. The mass arrests that followed the coup attempt swept up Mr Brunson, who was detained for two years. 

“Insurance policy” is quite possibly the only accurate and fitting image FT offers in its op-ed: the two sides “need each other” in the way co-conspirators in a crime need each other to keep quiet, with the unspoken ability of each of further blackmail the other. 

The release of Mr Brunson does not resolve all the issues between Washington and Ankara.

The Erdogan administration remains furious about US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, who the Turks insist are allies of Kurdish terrorists inside Turkey.

The Americans are unsettled by Mr Erdogan’s wooing of President Vladimir Putin, and angered by his decision to buy a Russian air-defence system. That decision is seen by Washington as incompatible with Nato membership; it could trigger further economic sanctions against Turkey.

Turkish companies could also be subjected to American secondary sanctions, when the US tightens its economic isolation of Iran, next month. Meanwhile Mr Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic behaviour at home — involving mass purges of the civil service and arrests of journalists — has drawn unfavourable attention in the US.

This is a formidable list of problems.

Overcoming all of them may not be possible. But there are some grounds for hope.

The release of Mr Brunson ends an injustice that weighed heavily with evangelical voters in the US.

The Syrian war may finally be coming to a close, which could make US support for the Kurdish rebels less of an issue. The threat of a crisis in US-Saudi relations should give the Trump administration an incentive to shore up ties with Turkey — another important regional power. The Erdogan government, meanwhile, is having to deal with a looming debt crisis. It needs goodwill in Washington.

However, if the US and Turkey are to rebuild their relationship, both sides will need to show restraint.

Ideally, the Turkish government should rethink its decision to buy Russian weaponry. Even if Turkey persists, the Trump administration should try to avoid a new round of economic sanctions. The Erdogan government, for its part, would do well to adopt a more understanding attitude to American aid for the Kurds in Syria, particularly if the US continues to provide intelligence co-operation on the terrorism threats facing Turkey. This kind of restraint will not be easy for either Mr Erdogan or Mr Trump — they are volatile and emotional leaders.

But in the interests of both their nations, it is time for some pragmatism and careful diplomacy.

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