Ankara (GPA) – The US pastor’s two-year detention is over, but what does Andrew Brunson’s release mean for the smoking crater that is the current state of Turkish-US relations?
After just over two years, the American Pastor Andrew Brunson has finally been released from Turkish custody. Brunson was arrested shortly after the 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Erdogan and has made his way through nearly every court in Turkey but was finally released by one of them this past Friday.
While Turkey would have you believe Brunson’s release is just something decided impartially by their courts, there is much more to this case. While Brunson likely has no connections to the US government, he was arrested at the time US-Turkey relations hit a major roadblock due to the coup attempt (which Erdogan alleges was US-backed). Unfortunately for Brunson, this means he became a major piece of a political battle between Ankara and Washington.
The Trials of Andrew Brunson
Andrew Brunson’s release was decided by the Izmir Heavy Penal Court No.2, which sentenced the pastor to three years and 45 days but credited his time already spent in Turkish custody leading to this court appearance. Prior to the hearing in Izmir, Brunson had spent the two years since his arrest in Turkish jails and then under house arrest.
This latest ruling likely came as a surprise to Brunson, as his past appeals have all been denied and he has also had new charges leveled against him during multiple court appearances.
Brunson was first arrested in October of 2016 on charges of being a supporter of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen, who lives in the United States is said to have been behind the 2016 coup attempt. After the coup failed, Erdogan implemented a state of emergency and outlawed the organization, known as FETO, which led to Brunson’s arrest.
Following these initial charges, more accusations were leveled against Brunson at his later court appearances. As time went on, Brunson was accused of more anti-government activity, including supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – a group deemed terrorists by NATO – as well as later being pegged as an agent of the US government.
Brunson continued through more courts trying to appeal these later accusations, but all his appeals in the past had been denied. Brunson was initially facing 35 years for all of these charges against him, which is why his sudden release was so surprising.
There is also precedent for sentencing alleged coup plotters. Brunson is far from the only person to be going through the Turkish courts with charges related to the failed coup. Soldiers and civilians all the way up to Erdogan’s air force escort from the night of the coup has been arrested and if all of these other “conspirators” cases were believed to be the norm, nobody would have been surprised if Brunson did rot in prison on likely false charges.
However, the pastor has managed to get out of Turkish custody and return to the United States. Turkish courts haven’t shown any mercy to any other ‘Gulenists’ but for some reason decided to spare this pastor. The reason for this is because the pastor’s arrest didn’t happen in a vacuum, but instead played a major role in the disintegration of US-Turkish relations.
Andrew Brunson’s release – a Turkish power play
The release of Brunson does not in any way signal that Turkey is easing up on alleged coup plotters or dissenters. Instead, what the release of Brunson likely means is that Turkey is that Erdogan has realized he needs the United States and saw a chance to get back in Washington’s good graces.
While Brunson’s release was unexpected, there are multiple reasons Erdogan likely saw this as the time to release him. Chief among the things that played into Brunson’s release is the Turkish economy. With the Turkish lira in freefall and some analysts saying Turkey may already be in a recession, things still managed to get noticeably worse in Turkey when US President Donald Trump slapped extra tariffs on aluminum and steel from Turkey.
Turkey ended up retaliating against Trump’s tariffs by placing tariffs of their own on American luxury goods including imports like tobacco and alcohol. This all came at a bad time for Turkey, as the market was already in trouble with the lira at record lows and inflation out of control even before Erdogan drew Trump’s ire.
There is also the matter of the new F-35, built by several NATO members (including Turkey). When words began flying between Erdogan and Trump concerning the pastor, Trump and the US Congress agreed to freeze the delivery of the new stealth fighter to Ankara (even though Turkish pilots are already training on them in the US).
The concern over the sale of the F-35 was also influenced by Turkey’s deal with Russia to purchase the S-400 missile defense systems. The purchase of the Russian systems was also taken into consideration by the US when they placed the sanctions on Turkey.
All of this likely plays into the timing of Andrew Brunson’s release as Erdogan gets more nervous about the Turkish economy. However, there is another event that likely also influenced the timing as Turkey seeks to play a role as a regional power in the Middle East: the Saudi assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, who was apparently killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, has become a major focus of the western media in the past few days as Turkish intelligence has continued to leak more information to reporters. Khashoggi’s death has caused shockwaves in the US and has forced politicians in Washington to finally acknowledge some of Saudi Arabia’s crims.
This works out well for Erdogan who has been in his own feud with Riyadh for some time as the two US allies jockey for the position of leader of radical Salafist Islamism. This fight between Ankara and Riyadh has been heating up for some time but really kicked into overdrive when Saudi Arabia essentially blockaded Turkish ally Qatar.
While Qatar has already basically been forgiven for the Saudis charges against Doha by the US, Erdogan is still in hot water with Washington and likely sees a chance to get back in the United States’ good graces while also throwing Saudi Arabia under the bus. Brunson’s release seems coordinated with these other geopolitical crises unfolding in Turkey and Erdogan most likely released the pastor in anticipation of further patching up relations with the west before it’s too late for his country.
Despite what some may think, Erdogan isn’t committed to going east and allying with Russia, his attempts at rapprochement with countries from Germany to the US is evidence that he still holds out hope of belonging in the west.
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.