Shahid M Amin
The fate of an American Christian priest detained in Turkey has currently created a crisis, almost a showdown, between USA and Turkey. This is a highly unusual development in state-to-state relations, which are normally conducted to promote concrete national interests, above all other considerations. But it seems that US President Trump and Turkish President Erdogan are determined to write a very different script in international relations where personal egos and national pride are over-riding vital interests.
For decades, USA and Turkey have had a strong relationship. When Turkey came under hegemonistic pressure from the Soviet Union in 1940s, President Truman announced support for Turkey’s territorial integrity under the Truman Doctrine, and extended military and economic support, which enabled it to resist the Soviet demands. Next, Turkey secured substantial assistance from USA under the Marshall Aid Plan. Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and for years remained a bulwark against Soviet expansion into the Mediterranean region. Turkey also took part in the Korean War on the side of USA in 1950s and, more recently, it has been a part of the NATO military operation in Afghanistan.
This historical relationship is today at stake because of the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who headed a small church in Izmir for about 20 years. He is accused of terrorism due to his alleged support for the outlawed Kurdish party (PKK) and links with the Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who allegedly organized a failed coup d’état against Erdogan in 2016. Gulen is seen by Erdogan as his biggest enemy in Turkish politics. The arrested US national is by faith an evangelical Christian. The majority of Christians in USA belong to this sect, which forms a powerful constituency. Trump owes his success in the Presidential election to the support by evangelical Christians, of whom 80 percent voted for him. Vice President Mike Pence is an evangelical Christian. Though normally low-keyed, Pence was so angered by Brunson’s detention that, in a Tweet on July 26, he warned Erdogan and the Turkish government as follows: “I have a message, on behalf of the President of the United States of America. Release Pastor Andrew Brunson NOW or be prepared to face the consequences.”
The foregoing narrative suggests that President Trump is also playing internal politics on Brunson’s issue to bolster support from his core voters. He is hoping that his tough stance against Turkey in support of a detained Christian priest will propel more Evangelicals to vote for his party in the midterm elections in November this year. There is no doubt that the Evangelicals have already made Brunson a cause célèbre and are mobilising support for him in churches across the country. The Islamophobic lobby is also being stirred up by the Brunson affair and propaganda is being made that Christians are ill-treated in Turkey and other Muslim countries. Against this background, the Trump administration has taken punitive measures against Turkey. On August 10, Trump announced the doubling of US tariff on import of Turkish steel and aluminum. Sanctions were imposed on two Turkish Ministers dealing with the case. US officials warned that more punitive actions might be taken if Brunson were not released. They have rejected any efforts to link Brunson’s release with deportation of Gulen or any other matter.
The US sanctions have affected Turkish economy and the value of Turkish Lira has fallen sharply, by as much as 40 percent this year, though it made a partial recovery after Qatar, which is a Turkish ally, announced a surprise offer to invest $15 billion in Turkish economy. Turkey has also retaliated by raising duties on imports of US electronic and other products. But the Trump administration is threatening to take some more steps against Turkey.
Actually, even before the present issue about Brunson, there was already tension between the two sides since the abortive coup of 2016 and the Turkish demand for expulsion of Gulen from US asylum. Turkey also objects to US support for Kurdish groups in Syria who are fighting IS (Daesh). Although Turkey too is against IS, it is worried that Kurds in Syria might join hands with Turkey’s Kurdish population for setting up an independent Kurdish state.
Erdogan has made speeches before Turkish crowds to rally their support. He has vowed to increase Turkish exports and to take other measures to strengthen the economy. Tourism is a major source of Turkish earnings and it has gone up because the Lira has become cheaper. Erdogan has consulted leaders of France and Germany and has reportedly been assured of their understanding and support. Pakistan has also expressed solidarity with Turkey. No doubt, Trump is unbalanced and has alienated many countries by his arm-twisting tactics and using economic sanctions to secure US policy objectives. Turkey has so far stood firm on the issue of Brunson’s detention and trial. At the same time, it has pointed out the folly of jeopardising important relations between Turkey and USA for the sake of release of an American under trial in Turkey for spying. Erdogan expressed indignation with the US stance saying “I call out to those in the United States. It is a shame. You are trading a strategic NATO ally for a priest.”
Erdogan is the longest-serving Turkish leader and during his rule, Turkish economy has done well. He is a strong leader and is outspoken and courageous. At home, he is very popular and has won election after election. But he has a combative style and has been quite intolerant of opposition. He has sought to monopolise power and curbed press freedom. Turkish society is split between his fervent supporters and his fierce critics. After the abortive 2016 coup, he purged his perceived opponents by the thousands. In foreign policy, he has been quarrelling with other countries. Not long ago, he was on a collision course with Russia. He has openly intervened in the Syrian civil war. He is at odds with Egyptian President el-Sisi. Saudi Arabia is having problems with him. It would be best for Turkey if Erdogan takes a more conciliatory stance and the present issue with USA on detention of an American national is not allowed to become a grave crisis.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.