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Has the conflict between Ankara and Washington come to an end?

October 17, 2018 at 3:59 pm

U.S President Donald Trump (R) and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shake hands during a joint press conference after their meeting at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, United States on 16 May, 2017 [Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency]

Turkey’s release of Reverend Andrew Brunson so that he can return to the US can be viewed as a step towards normalising Turkish-American relations. This could pave the way to ending an unprecedented period of tension and in the relations between the two historically allied countries.

However, Brunson’s release has also unleashed talk of deals; the US media has already reported a deal that was discussed during the meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly session in New York. The deal allegedly stipulates the release of Brunson in exchange for the lifting of US economic sanctions on Turkey, but Trump has denied that this is the case.

Turkish media and political circles, however, have mentioned that Brunson was released in exchange for the implementation of the Manbij agreement. Remarks by President Erdogan regarding the agreement between Ankara and Washington were linked by the media to Brunson’s release. On the eve of the latter, Erdogan said that the Manbij deal was “delayed, not dead” and called on the US to implement the clauses signed in Ankara on 4 June by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Pastor Andrew Brunson, who faces terror-related charges, is under house arrest in Aegean province of Izmir, Turkey

Pastor Andrew Brunson, who faces terror-related charges, is under house arrest in Aegean province of Izmir, Turkey

Some Turkish politicians may have exaggerated their expectations for the corresponding step that the US might take in response, though. The head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, for example, predicted that Washington would respond to the deal by taking a similar step and releasing Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who was deputy general manager at Halkbank before being sentenced to 32 months in prison on charges of laundering Iranian money. The US has rejected such a deal in the past.

Ankara, however, expects the US to lift economic sanctions imposed on Turkey’s Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu following the detention of Rev. Brunson. They also expect the cancellation of the US decision to double the tariffs imposed on steel and aluminium imports from Turkey, which may reflect positively on the Turkish economy and on the Turkish Lira.

Trump was overjoyed at Brunson’s release because this would satisfy his hardline evangelical Christian voters ahead of the midterm elections in November. He thanked Erdogan and tweeted that this would lead to “good, perhaps great, relations between the United States and Turkey!”

READ: Turkish lira weakens after Trump says ‘no concessions’

Will this be the case? Is it possible to remove the many points of disagreement between the two countries on several regional and international issues? Such differences extend to US objections to the government strategies in Turkey; how the US is dealing with the Syrian issue due to Washington’s focus on support for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria, which Turkey considers the Syrian arm of the banned PKK, in its fight against Daesh; and US politicians’ disregard for the Syrian regime’s practices, which Ankara believes caused the whole crisis in the country.

Perhaps most important is what Ankara considers to have been its abandonment by the US and Western countries when relations with Russia were strained after the downing of one of its fighter aircraft in November 2015. America’s vague position on the failed coup attempt in Turkey two years ago increased the tension, as did Washington ’s refusal to hand over Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania and is believed by Ankara to have been behind the attempted overthrow of the Erdogan government.

Although the US economic sanctions imposed as a result of the detention of Reverend Brunson are expected to be lifted, the rift in US-Turkish relations requires major efforts in order put them back on track with regard to issues in the Middle East. These include the main factor and biggest contributor to the tension, not only over Syria but also Turkey’s relations with Israel and Iran, as well as the links with Russia and the political understandings by the Russia-Iran-Turkey troika over Syria. Hence, the Brunson deal alone is not expected to remove the differences between Ankara and Washington. Aside from the politics, there are also major economic considerations, with Iran being a supplier of gas and oil to Turkey.

READ: Trump thanks Turkey for pastor’s release, denies cutting deal

There is no doubt that Trump’s “good, even great” relations, require practical steps, the most important of which is the suspension of a draft bill approved by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that limits Turkey’s access to loans from international institutions. Furthermore, the US is expected to tighten sanctions against Tehran and the second batch of sanctions is set to be implemented on 4 November, so what will the US administration do if Turkish politicians continue to insist on not giving in to US sanctions on Iran?

Perhaps more important will be Trump’s position on a bill passed by the Senate that would stop Turkey’s sale of F-35 fighter jets if it goes ahead with the S-400 missile deal with Russia, which was signed in September last year.

Although Brunson’s release is a step in the right direction, popular hostility in Turkey towards US foreign policy suggests that accumulated difficulties and differences between Ankara and Washington aren’t going to disappear overnight.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.