Trump to meet pastor freed by Turkey at White House on Saturday

Pastor Andrew Brunson, left, is escorted to his home in Izmir after his release. (Bloomberg pic)

WASHINGTON: Turkey’s release of US Pastor Andrew Brunson settles an issue that pushed ties between the countries to new lows. But there are plenty of unresolved tensions that continue to undermine relations between the two NATO allies.

President Donald Trump tweeted on Saturday that Brunson will visit the Oval Office at 2:30 p.m. Washington time. “It will be wonderful to see and meet him,” Trump said, adding thanks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for helping.

Brunson’s coming home after almost two years in prison and house arrest after Friday’s decision by a Turkish court. The evangelical pastor’s case was championed by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, among others.

Turkey had charged Brunson with aiding people involved in a failed 2016 coup against Erdogan, accusations the US rejected.

Brunson, 50, left Turkey late on Friday. Trump said that the pastor appeared to be “in good shape.” He was expected to have a medical checkup in Germany before continuing on to the US.

‘No deal’
“He suffered greatly but we’re very appreciative to a lot of people,” the president said Friday in Cincinnati on his way to a campaign rally.

On Saturday, Trump declared there’d been “NO DEAL” to secure Brunson’s release. “I don’t make deals for hostages,” he tweeted. “There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States.”

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump There was NO DEAL made with Turkey for the release and return of Pastor Andrew Brunson. I don’t make deals for hostages. There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey! Via Twitter.

Trump’s frustration over Brunson’s continued detention became the dominant issue between the US and Turkey in recent months. It prompted the US leader to double metal tariffs on Turkey in August, fueling a weakening of the lira, and impose financial sanctions on key Erdogan aides involved in the pastor’s case. Saturday’s comment on potentially “good, perhaps great relations” raises hopes those measures will be reversed.

“This had to happen for things to just hold,” said Max Hoffman, associate director for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “If he hadn’t been released there were going to be new sanctions or additional sanctions and the tailspin would continue. So at least we’ve stopped the deterioration.”

A court in Izmir convicted Brunson and sentenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in jail but lifted all judicial controls and released him after accounting for penalty reductions and time served. He’d been transferred to house arrest in July because of poor health, and US officials had expected him to be freed then, to no avail.

No backing down
The standoff between Trump and Erdogan, two leaders known for not wanting to back down publicly, had appeared to be at a stalemate. But one analyst suggested the economic cost to Turkey made the dispute untenable.

“Given how fragile Turkey’s economy is, Erdogan knows this will reflect positively on the Turkish economy and the currency,” said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “That could be the payoff — avoiding further political and economic problems.”

Officials have hoped Brunson’s release could serve as a catalyst for improving ties between Turkey and the US-Turkey has played a key role in the fight against Islamic State in neighbouring Syria and has the second-biggest military in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Grievances remain
Yet there are still significant grievances between the two countries. Erdogan hasn’t stepped back from plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, the S-400, that isn’t compatible with NATO requirements. That has fueled demands in the US that planned deliveries of F-35 jets be put on hold even though portions of the Lockheed Martin Co. fighter are being built in Turkey.

In addition, at least three other people detained in Turkey have attracted Washington’s attention and fueled strains. They include NASA scientist Serkan Golge and three Turkish employees of the US mission to Turkey. The US says they’re innocent.

“We remain deeply concerned about the continued detention of other United States citizens in Turkey and around the world, and urge the resolution of all these cases in a transparent and fair manner,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement welcoming Brunson’s release.

Lira’s fall
“While we are relieved by today’s decision on Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention, we remain concerned for the Turkish people,” the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement on Friday. “Turkey must continue to work to treat all of its citizens equally and with respect for their religious freedom.”

Before Brunson’s release, Turkish officials had been seeking meetings with the US to negotiate a resolution to his case and other issues, but National Security Adviser John Bolton declared in August that no such talks would proceed until Brunson was let go. In the meantime, Turkey’s lira continued its fall, losing about 25% of its value in August alone.

While Trump said no concessions were made to Turkey to secure Brunson’s release, the question is whether the US will move on its own to ease sanctions imposed in recent months that have added to the difficulties facing the country’s economy.

From Turkey’s side, the US hasn’t shown any movement toward meeting Erdogan’s long-standing demand to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a prominent Turkish cleric living in exile in the US whom Erdogan has blamed for the coup. Gulen denies involvement in the coup attempt.

Bank executive
Also outstanding: the fate of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Halkbank executive sentenced to prison in the US for violating Iran sanctions. Erdogan has ridiculed the conviction and called for Atilla to be set free.

But Brunson’s release eliminates an embarrassing, if temporary, defeat for Trump, who believed he had an agreement with Erdogan for the pastor to be released months ago, only to see it fall apart. It shows that despite continuing grievances, the two countries can overcome their mutual suspicion in some cases.

The move also hands Trump a victory that will be favourably viewed by his evangelical political base ahead of midterm elections next month. And it allows the president to focus more on another escalating foreign policy crisis: relations with Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom is increasingly under fire amid charges — from Turkey — that it lured a prominent critic and US resident into its consulate in Istanbul and killed him. The accusations have been rejected in Riyadh but are threatening to undermine relations with an ally the president has courted assiduously since making his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia in May last year.

Trump turned his attention to the Saudi dispute in comments to reporters on Friday, after announcing that Brunson was on his way back to the US.

“This is a serious problem,” Trump said of the Saudi controversy. “This is a very serious thing.”