Senators Double Down On Brunson's Release as U.S.-Turkey Relations Spiral

Experts are skeptical that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will bow to Washington’s pressure campaign.

Senate Armed Service Committee member Lindsey Graham on Jan. 24.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Aug. 21, 2018, 8 p.m.

The Trump administration's all-in pressure campaign on Ankara was supposed to secure the release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson. But with Brunson still under house arrest—and the Turkish economy in free fall—key senators are urging negotiators to find common ground.

“I think we need to chill out, both sides,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told National Journal. “I am worried we’re going to get into a spot where we can’t get out.”

But, Graham added, “he needs to be released.”

Brunson stands accused by Turkish authorities of helping orchestrate the failed 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and is currently under house arrest. His detention has animated leaders of the evangelical community, an influential pro-Trump constituency with close ties to the administration, and unified lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Senators say the first step to normalizing relations with Turkey can only come with Brunson's release. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who visited the pastor with Graham in June, said freeing Brunson could act as a "confidence-building measure" in the bilateral relationship. But, she added, "I am worried that the situation is escalating in a way that may ... make it more difficult for Pastor Brunson."

Erdogan has seized upon Western sanctions as proof that the United States is engaged in “economic warfare” against Turkey, writing in The New York Times that “failure to reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect will require us to start looking for new friends and allies.”

When asked if sanctions were pushing Turkey closer toward Russia, Sen. Bob Menendez said: “I have to be honest with you, Turkey has been on that road anyhow, on its own … so I’m not sure that this leads them even closer, when that’s where they were headed.”

Despite months of negotiations, U.S. and Turkish officials have been unable to reach an agreement. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. rejected a Turkish offer to release Brunson in exchange for relief from billions of dollars in fines against the state-owned bank Halkbank. The head of international banking at Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, was found guilty in January of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions by laundering money in Turkey.

Turkey desperately needs the relief. The lira, already weakened by years of mismanagement, dropped precipitously after the Trump administration levied sanctions against two officials responsible for Brunson’s arrest. It fell even further after Trump tweeted that the U.S. would double steel and aluminum tariffs.

Turkey has also come under pressure from Congress, which passed language in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that prohibits the delivery of over 100 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters until the Defense Department conducts a review of the relationship—an unprecedented rebuke to the close NATO ally.

Turkey is one of five NATO member states—along with Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands—allowed to store U.S. nuclear weapons as part of NATO’s nuclear “sharing” deterrent strategy. It hosts thousands of U.S. military personnel at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, the launchpad for combat missions into Syria and Iraq.

“It’s such a sad situation to me,” said Sen. Rob Portman, “because they were poised to go toward a more democratic future, with ties to the EU and as a NATO member. And now it seems to be going the opposite direction.”

Members of both houses have written letters to Erdogan demanding Brunson’s release, and in late July, a bipartisan group of senators on the Foreign Relations Committee introduced legislation aiming to use U.S. leverage at international lenders like the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to limit Turkey’s access to capital.

Turkey has lately turned to other allies, like Russia and Qatar, for support. Qatar pledged last week to inject $15 billion into the cash-strapped Turkish economy, and its central bank signed a $3 billion currency-swap agreement Monday with Turkey to provide further liquidity to the economy. Ankara has also drifted closer to Moscow, finalizing a deal late last year for the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile-defense system.

“[The Russians] are maximizing this opportunity,” said Neil Quilliam, senior research fellow with Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa program. “There’s a political vacuum that the U.S. has left, and the Russians are just inserting themselves.”

Tillis, who has helped galvanize support for Brunson’s release in Congress, said while the U.S. must give Turkey "a viable option" when it comes to missile defense to compete against the S-400, the broader U.S.-Turkey relationship will be determined by Ankara's economic reliance on the West.

“I think Turkey needs to be worried about getting closer towards Russia. I think they need to understand they’ve got a lot of economic fundamentals they need to work on, they’ve gotta think about the economic impact of being closer to Russia, and further away from Europe and NATO allies,” he said.

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