The case involving American Pastor Andrew Brunson has turned into a war of nerves between Turkey and the United States. This case has more to do with pent up political frustrations on both sides, than legal issues.
It now involves political brinkmanship and everyone is waiting to see who blinks first.
The recent transfer of Brunson from prison to house arrest was a sign that Ankara wanted to release some of the pressure Washington was plying on it to release the pastor.
Washington wants Brunson to be released and all charges against him dropped unconditionally. These charges include colluding with the FETO group that tried to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the abortive coup attempt in 2016, and sympathizing with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Washington says these charges are ridiculous. Ankara, however, rejects this and says there is sound evidence against Brunson.
Transferring Brunson to house arrest, though, was clearly not enough for the American side, as President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s angry Twitter messages threating Turkey with sanctions show.
In the background to this case is Turkey’s demand that the U.S. extradite the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of being the mastermind of the abortive coup attempt in 2016. Washington says Turkey has not provided convincing evidence linking Gulen to this attempt. Ankara says it has and accuses the U.S. of foot-dragging for political reasons.
The fact that there is already a widespread belief among Erdogan’s supporters, that the U.S. was also involved in the coup attempt only makes matters worse.
Trump and Pence’s Twitter messages also show that that the American side is not quite aware of the current rise in nationalistic sentiment in Turkey. Trump is not enamored with the State Department so he probably doesn’t take U.S. Embassy dispatches from Ankara seriously.
As Mesut Yilmaz, a former prime minister and foreign minister, said last week, it’s almost as if Washington doesn’t want to see Brunson released, otherwise Trump and Pence would not have come out with their angry threats.
Those Twitter messages more or less guaranteed that Brunson will not be released any time soon. To the contrary there is a clamoring in Turkey for him to be thrown back into prison.
There are other cases in the background that are also making this one more difficult. One of these involves Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who received a three year sentence in New York for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran when he was a senior executive for the state owned Halk Bank.
Ankara says Atilla was unjustly jailed because Turkey is not bound by U.S. sanctions that have not received U.N. Security Council endorsement. Washington says it doesn’t care about that, it arrested Atilla on U.S. soil and that is good enough for them.
Washington refers to Brunson as a hostage who is being held by Turkey to force the U.S. to extradite Gulen. Many in Ankara believe that Atilla is a political prisoner being held to pressure Turkey into accepting U.S. demands.
Subtle diplomacy, on the other hand, is nowhere to be seen.
It seems that Brunson and Atilla are both hostages to the inability of Ankara and Washington to resolve these and other issues clouding ties between the two countries with political wisdom.
One can’t help recall a Turkish saying. It takes one fool to throw a stone in the well that forty wise men can’t take out.