Erdogan intends to use Mr. Brunson as leverage against the Zarrab case. At this point, the Trump administration must decide how to handle a brutal, ruthless dictator both to help suffering Turks and Mr. Brunson.
For months, the plight of a North Carolina minister jailed in Turkey has simmered on the back burner of American media as the national obsession with the elections sucked up the nation’s attention. But the case of Andrew Brunson, who has ministered to a small congregation in Izmir for 23 years, reveals the sensitivity of the new Administration for human rights in the Middle East. The short and nonproductive meeting of the presidents of the U.S. and Turkey on May 16 underscores the ever-shrinking alliance between these two nations.
The meeting on May 16 was short, only 22 minutes, and turned out to be little more than a photo op. President Trump mentioned his hope for Brunson’s release twice and Vice President Mike Pence mentioned it once. By all appearances, Erdogan wanted to trade the release of the North Carolina pastor for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, an elderly cleric in Pennsylvania perceived by Erdogan to be his arch enemy, and release of Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish businessman arrested for sanctions-busting scheme of Iranian oil and money laundering, but the President was having none of it. Erdogan’s visit was marred by his security guards brutalizing protestors outside the Turkish embassy -- all in all a PR catastrophe for Ankara.
Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson was arrested on November 20, 2016, by the Turkish National Police in Izmir, where he had lived for 23 years peacefully. The initial charges against him were related to immigration, but a few days later he was shocked to be charged with supporting terrorism.
Likely Mr. Brunson was arrested simply to serve as a bargaining chip to pressure the U.S. government to grant him his way in the disposition of two federal cases perceived by Turkey to support Erdogan's political future. The first is Mr. Gulen’s extradition, which would shore up Erdogan’s so-far undemonstrated claim that Gulen masterminded the coup attempt. The second request is that the U.S. drop charges against a Turkish-Iranian gold trader, Mr. Reza Zarrab, who stands accused of helping Iran evade international sanctions and money laundering.
The Zarrab case is the smoking gun issue that could land Erdogan in jail if he is charged and convicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The FBI arrested Zarrab in March 2016, and he is currently in a federal jail in New York. Zarrab allegedly distributed commissions and bribes in Turkey Erdogan himself, his close family members and many senior government members. Erdogan has reason to fear that Zarrab will eventually testify against him to reduce his own sentence.
Erdogan openly announced before coming to Washington that he was going to ask Mr. Trump to release Zarrab, halt his case and extradite Mr. Gulen. Apparently, the U.S. and Turkish delegations discussed three critical issues during the meetings held at the White House. The first was the coalition between the U.S. forces and the military of the Kurdish breakaway cantons in Northern Syria, the YPG, and the armament of the YPG before the ISIS Raqqa operation. The second issue was the extradition of Mr. Gulen and the third, and the most critical matter for Erdogan was the Zarrab case.
Mr. Trump reminded Erdogan that the decision on arming the YPG had already been made, the extradition case involved Mr. Gulen was a legal matter which needed to be processed based on the evidence provided, and the Zarrab case was a criminal matter which could not be politicized. Game over for the under-the-table deal making.
The White House press release about the meeting stated that Mr. Trump “raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish government expeditiously return him to the United States.” Mr. Pence tweeted as “Proud to join @POTUS for discussion of issues w/ NATO ally Turkey including the plight of Pastor Andrew Brunson,” and providing a link to Pastor Brunson’s story.
Erdogan reportedly left the Washington in a huff. Two days after he left, the Turkish newspaper Takvim, secretly owned by Erdogan and managed by his son-in-law Berat Albayrak’s brother, carried the issue of Mr. Brunson for two consecutive days to its headlines.
Takvim’s headlines promoted apparently fake news on a scale not seen since the demise of the Soviet Union. On May 20, Takvim reported that “if the July 15 coup were successful; Mr. Brunson was going to be the director of the CIA.” Takvim further asserted that Brunson was a senior CIA agent who was tasked to work in Izmir. A secret witness had claimed that Mr. Brunson and his wife Norine were among the senior leadership of the Gulen movement and had provided vast amounts of finances to Gulen group abroad. In this undocumented expose, Brunson was actually leading a large spy network in the country. His arrest on November 20, 2016, had “crippled the U.S. intelligence,” Takvim insisted. Takvim also abruptly reported that Brunson was funding the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist organization.
The newspaper campaign is bad news for Brunson’s family. By asserting Brunson’s guilt in screaming headlines, it is obvious that Erdogan intends to use Mr. Brunson as leverage against the Zarrab case scheduled to start in August at the Southern District of New York federal court. Erdogan knows that if he cannot save Zarrab from prison, he will testify against him and Erdogan and some of his family members will become criminal suspects.
At this point, the Trump administration must decide how to handle a brutal, ruthless dictator both to help suffering Turks and Mr. Brunson. The chasm between Erdogan and the Trump Administration grows wider with each passing month. Mr. Trump was one of the few western leaders who promptly congratulated Erdogan for his triumph at the national referendum in April that gave him expanded powers. Erdogan decided not to join President Trump in Riyadh on Sunday when he challenged all Muslim heads of government to “drive out terrorists from this earth. “On that historic day, Turkey was represented by its foreign minister while Erdogan attended a ceremony in Ankara to celebrate his re-instatement as head of the AK Party.
Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University. He is also senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He formerly served as a professor and the chair of the sociology department at Harran University in Turkey. He also served as the chief of counterterrorism and operations department of the Turkish National Police in Sanliurfa between 2010 and 2013. He is the co-author of the newly released book ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @ahmetsyayla