Better Turkey-US relations will not automatically follow his release, observers say
Pastor Andrew Brunson arrives back in US after release from Turkish jail
President Donald Trump on Saturday welcomed home the American pastor whose incarceration sparked one of the lowest points in US-Turkey relations, but the impact of his release on the Nato allies’ troubled relationship remained to be seen.
Andrew Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical preacher from North Carolina, was freed on Friday despite being sentenced to just over three years on terror charges. Judges ruled that the two years he had already spent in jail or under house arrest was sufficient punishment.
The decision removed one of the central disputes between Ankara and Washington in recent years, but it remains unclear whether it will be enough to repair ties or do much to restore the ailing Turkish economy, which was put under greater pressure by the affair.
Keeping Mr Brunson in detention raised the risk of further US retaliation and more damage to the Turkish economy, according to Inan Demir, a senior economist at Nomura International.
“If Brunson is not released, the markets will start to price in further sanctions by the US,” Mr Demir told The National before the court delivered its verdict. “And, as long as we don't have much clarity on the US sanctions, the markets’ inclination will be to price in the more adverse scenario.”
Selim Sazak, an adjunct fellow at New York’s Century Foundation and an international relations doctoral candidate at Brown University, noted that Turkey’s economic issues were more deep-rooted.
“Turkey’s problems are its own, they’re not of the US’s making,” he said. “The US is not responsible for appointing the president’s son-in-law to head the finance ministry or for overseeing a runaway credit boom or for corruption.
“The Turkish economy faces multiple organ failure, it’s systemic.”
Although the Turkish lira, which had lost about 40 per cent of its value against the dollar this year, recovered by 3 per cent in the run-up to the court hearing that saw Mr Brunson freed, there was little change on Friday, although 10-year Turkish government bonds gained nearly 12 per cent in price.
“We’re talking about an extra cherry on the cake,” Mr Sazak said. “But the problem’s not the cherries, it’s the cake itself, which is falling apart.”
Arrested in October 2016, Mr Brunson’s case was highlighted by President Donald Trump over the summer. In August, Washington imposed sanctions on two Turkish cabinet ministers and later doubled tariffs on steel and aluminium, sending the lira to a historic low against the dollar.
The case had also become a lightning rod for a host of disputes between the US and Turkey.
These include the refusal to extradite US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara accuses of masterminding a July 2016 coup attempt; American support for Syrian-Kurdish fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a four-decade fight against Turkey; the conviction and imprisonment of a Turkish bank executive for breaking US sanctions on Iran; and Turkey’s deal with Russia to buy air defence missiles.
As well as Mr Brunson, Turkey has jailed an unknown number of other US citizens, including Turkish-American Nasa scientist Serkan Golge, and local consulate staff.
The US has indicated it will also push for their release but on the day Mr Brunson was freed, Hamza Ulucay, a translator at the Adana consulate who faces 15 years in jail on terror charges, had his request to be let out of prison turned down.
Welcoming Mr Brunson’s release, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the US was still “deeply concerned about the continued detention of other United States citizens in Turkey”.
Refusing to say if the sanctions on Turkish ministers would now be lifted, she added: “The United States and Turkey have a number of mutual concerns regarding regional security and stability and we look forward to working together on these issues.”
The imprisonment of Americans has endangered Turkey’s acquisition of F-35 fighter jets, which it helped develop alongside other Nato members. US senators specifically cited “wrongfully or unlawfully” held US citizens when proposing a bill to block the transfer of F-35s to Turkey earlier this year.
In addition, the two countries are now embroiled in the case of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident who disappeared after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul nearly two weeks ago.
“It’s difficult to see what difference the Brunson case alone will make to the relationship between Turkey and the US,” said a political scientist at a leading Istanbul university who asked not to be named.
“There are so many issues and I don’t know who’s going to step on whose toes the next time round. They might have learned one thing, which is not to push a problem to such an extreme, but this is not a significant step towards reconciliation or convergence because tomorrow it will be something else.”
Before the Mr Brunson's arrival at the White House, Mr Trump tweeted his thanks to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “for his help”, although the Turkish leader has repeatedly said that the case was a matter for the judiciary and out of his hands.
Mr Trump dismissed reports that the pastor's freedom was the result of an arrangement between Washington and Ankara.
And despite Mr Trump's optimism that the result would be “good, perhaps great” ties with Turkey, Mr Sazak said the fraught US-Turkey relationship remained unresolved.
“Unless you solve the PKK problem and the Gulen problem, there will be no solution,” he said.