Is the Release of Pastor Brunson a Victory for the Trump Administration?

October 13, 2018

The most striking feature of the Brunson case is that the U.S. has resisted to understand Turkey’s new foreign policy, and this led to a crisis between the two countries.
U.S. pastor Andrew Craig Brunson (C) arrives at Adnan Menderes airport in Izmir, on October 12, 2018 after being freed following a trial in a court in Aliaga in western Izmir province. Getty Images

The most striking feature of the Brunson case is that the U.S. has resisted to understand Turkey’s new foreign policy, and this led to a crisis between the two countries. Just to remind the reader, American Pastor Andrew C. Brunson has been kept under arrest for almost two years with the accusation of aiding terrorist groups such as the PKK. He was put on trial, found guilty and was condemned to a three year plus imprisonment by the Turkish courts.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence claimed earlier that he had been innocent and expressed that he had to be released immediately. The language adopted in those statements bore a degree of threat and was disrespectful to the Turkish judicial system. That’s why Turkish officials have criticized President Trump and Vice President Pence for not showing patience and being disrespectful to the judicial process after the release of the pastor. They underlined that Turkey is a country where the rule of law is shown due respect. In fact, the issue was more than being about the rule of law, it is more of respecting Turkey’s sovereignty and recognizing its new international status.

The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s probable murder in the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul also points to the same problem. It is clear that the Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman ordered the killing of Mr. Khashoggi on account of his critical stance towards the Saudi regime. Regarding the very close and special relations between Prince Salman and President Trump’s son-in-law and senior envoy to the Middle East Jared Kushner, it is not hard to guess that the U.S. was closely following the issue and was informed that Mr. Khashoggi was ordered to be killed. Choosing Istanbul as the location for this outrageous act, which directly defies the norms of international politics, does not seem to be random. It has been rightly put forward by some analysts that the purpose of this unfortunate act of killing was not just to get rid of an opponent of the Saudi regime but to get Turkey involved into this unfortunate incident and to violate its sovereignty.

Combining these two recent incidents with the Trump administration’s supply of heavy weapons and diplomatic protection to the Syrian branch of PKK (YPG) and its unabashed and militant foreign policy towards Palestine and Jerusalem, one can conclude that the U.S. shows no respect to Turkey’s security concerns and sovereign rights. More to the point, the Trump administration fails to understand Turkey’s new foreign policy doctrine. Turkey has been following a revisionist foreign policy for a couple of years. It has been seeking adjustments in the existing distribution of power in its region and in the international system in general.

Turkey’s current Syrian policy and its call for reforming international institutions such as the UN Security Council on the basis of new international realities can be given as examples to this revisionist turn in Turkish foreign policy. Despite that these are defensive policies, since they were put into action after Turkey came under attack by terrorist groups and its long-term allies, they manifest the desire for change in international politics.

The U.S.’s uncompromising posture pushes Turkey towards more activism in its foreign policy. President Erdogan has just vowed to eliminate all the YPG militants in Manbij and cleanse off the region from the terrorist elements located in the east of the Euphrates river. This would be a punch in the face to the YPG (and also to the U.S.) who has already suffered a terrible loss in the Operation Oil Branch in Afrin. After that done Turkey would secure the control of all its southern border with Syria and become a more powerful actor in Syrian politics and in the region in general.

As long as the U.S. clings to its current policy of disrespecting Turkey’s sovereignty and supporting its enemies, this will get Turkey to feel more insecure and as a result it will accelerate its policy of defensive expansion in its vicinity. The Trump administration has to find a better policy to be able to contain Turkey. Supporting the YPG, giving unconditional support to Israel, disrespecting Turkey’s sovereignty and opening an economic war have so far backfired. Turkey has grown more powerful.

Ali Aslan studied Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware, where he received his PhD in 2012. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Ibn Haldun University and a researcher at SETA Istanbul. Aslan is also a columnist for The New Turkey.