As the crisis in U.S.-Turkey relations escalates, the time has come to imagine the unimaginable.
Imagine that Turkish President Recep Erdogan decides — G-d forbid — to execute American pastor Andrew Brunson.
On Wednesday, a Turkish court in Itzmir province rejected an appeal by Brunson’s lawyer to release him from house arrest and sent the appeal to a higher court.
Imagine that Brunson were to be tried –in a kangaroo court — and found guilty of espionage and support for terrorism.
He is sentenced to death, taken out of the courtroom with a hood over his head, led to the gallows and hung in broad daylight.
The U.S. embassy in Ankara is then invited to pick up his body for disposal.
What would the U.S. do?
It is important to imagine the unimaginable because at this point, the unimaginable is possible.
This is the key point to consider when observing the rapid deterioration Turkish-U.S. relations are now experiencing.
For the better part of the past 15 years since Erdogan and his Islamist AJP party were first elected in December 2002, Turkey watchers in the U.S. have warned that U.S. leaders and policymakers that Erdogan is an Islamist revolutionary who intends to transform Turkey into a radical Islamic state.
For years, observers have watched and warned as Turkey cozied up to Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. They warned as Erdogan permitted Turkey to serve as ISIS’s mobilization base and main economic market for Syrian oil.
Throughout this long, step-by-step transformation of Turkey from a secular republic aligned with the U.S. into an Islamic dictatorship aligned with Islamic State and Hamas, successive administrations have turned a deaf ear to the warning. And with good reason. Strategically connecting Asia and Europe, Russia and the Mediterranean, Turkey sits athwart some of the most strategically valuable territory in the world. The U.S. has used the NATO air base in Incirlik to project its power worldwide.
Beyond that, the narrative Erdogan sold credulous U.S. officials – that his regime was proof that Islamists are not at war with the U.S. — was a great one. Who wouldn’t want to believe that an elected dictator aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood who openly calls for the restoration of the Ottoman Empire and the destruction of Israel is proof that Islam isn’t at war with the world?
The Trump administration, like its two predecessors, was not at all eager to acknowledge reality, let alone act on it. So it was that the administration sat back and did nothing in January when Erdogan ordered the Turkish military to overrun America’s Kurdish allies from the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin, Syria. And so it was that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cut a deal in June with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, requiring the U.S.-allied Kurdish dominated SDP forces in Manbij, Syria, to leave the town and permit Turkish forces to take over. The Pompeo-Cavusoglu agreement followed months during which Erdogan had openly threatened to attack U.S. special forces deployed to Manbij alongside the SDP military advisors.
But since Trump entered office, there has been a major obstacle that made ignoring Turkey’s hostility to the U.S. and its interests increasingly difficult to sweep under the rug.
That obstacle is the imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson.
Brunson was taken into custody a month before the 2016 elections. On October 6, 2016, Brunson, an evangelical Presbyterian pastor who has been living in Turkey for 23 years, went to the local police station in Izmir for what he assumed was a routine procedure to renew his Turkish visa.
Instead, he was taken into custody. Brunson was told he would be deported in 15 days. He was then held incognito for a week. During that time, Brunson was denied access to his lawyer, who in turn was told by police that Brunson had refused counsel.
In breach of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the U.S. consulate was denied the right to visit Brunson.
It took nearly a year and half for the Turks to charge Brunson with a crime. In March 2018 he was charged with support for a terrorist group and with espionage. Until he was released to house arrest last month, Brunson was subjected to inhumane prison conditions in two separate prisons and confined to his cell 24 hours a day.
At the start of his trial in April, his lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt told Reuters that Brunson was arrested because of his practice of Christianity. In his words, “There is evidence that shows Brunson was arrested due to his faith.” Brunson’s role as the pastor of a small Evangelical church with 25 regular worshippers in Izmir was “classified as aiding terror organizations.”
The Trump administration is similarly convinced that Brunson was arrested and is being persecuted for his practice and preaching of Christianity. Vice President Mike Pence said so outright in his speech last month before the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
Several aspects of Brunson’s treatment stand out. Each on its own is sufficient to demonstrate one basic point: By the time he was arrested, the U.S. alliance with Turkey was already over.
Brunson’s arrest and ongoing captivity and persecution did not cause the breach in Turkish relations with the U.S. But Brunson’s arrest and subsequent persecution is evidence that the alliance is long dead.
Consider the following.
First, Turkey’s apparent decision to single Brunson out for persecution as a consequence of his faith is an expression of its abandonment of its former secular national character, and its embrace of Erdogan’s radical Islamic ideology as a governing philosophy.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has systematically persecuted its Christian minority, seizing churches and blocking worship. The regime’s persecution of Christians goes along with its persecution of other minority groups, including Kurds, Alevis, Yazidis, Jews and women.
The persecution of Christians is part and parcel of the Erdogan regime’s repression of civil rights and replacement of democracy with tyranny and repression.
While an alliance with a secular Muslim majority quasi-democracy was an easy fit for the U.S., an alliance with a religious freedom-trampling, minority-persecuting tyranny is a much less comfortable match for America. It is possible to cooperate with such a regime on the basis of common interests on a piecemeal basis. Maintaining a long-term strategic alliances with such a regime is a much more difficult prospect.
Then there is the fact that Erdogan has made no effort to hide the fact that Brunson is not a prisoner in the normal sense of the word. He is a hostage. Erdogan is holding him to extort concessions from the United States.
Consider the deal Trump thought he made with Erdogan when they met last month at the NATO conference.
Trump reportedly believed that he had and Erdogan struck a deal for Brunson’s release. Erdogan told Trump he would free Brunson if Israel released a Turkish national, Ebru Ozkan, who was detained in Israel pending trial after being arrested for operating a money laundering scheme for Hamas.
After meeting with Erdogan, on July 14 Trump phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and asked him to free Ozkan. Israel freed Ozkan and sent her back to Turkey the next day.
So Erdogan ransomed Brunson for a Hamas terrorist. This is not the sort of behavior you would expect to see in a NATO member and a long-term strategic ally.
But that, of course, wasn’t the worst of it. After securing Ozkan’s release, Erdogan double-crossed Trump. Rather than free Brunson and repatriate him as he promised to do, Erdogan moved Brunson from prison to house arrest and barred him from leaving Turkey. That is, he kept him hostage.
And now he expects to ransom him a second time, for a bigger fish: Fethullah Gulen.
Last year Erdogan indicated that he was using Brunson to coerce the U.S. to extradite Gulen, a Turkish cleric who resides in Pennsylvania. Erdogan alleges that Gulen was behind the failed July 2016 coup against him. Turkey has sought Gulen’s extradition since the coup but has failed to provide sufficient evidence to justify his extradition.
Last year, in remarks relating to Brunson, Erdogan said, The (pastor) we have is on trial. Yours is not — he is living in Pennsylvania … You can give him right away.”
As he called Sunday for Turks to exchange their dollars for the rapidly collapsing Turkish lira to prove their patriotism, Erdogan addressed Trump angrily, saying, “We can only say ‘good-bye’ to anyone who sacrifices its strategic partnership and a half century alliance with a country of 81 million for the sake of relations with terror groups. You dare to sacrifice 81 million [in] Turkey for a priest who is linked to terror groups?”
But the truth of course is the opposite. Erdogan sacrificed his country’s half-century alliance with the U.S. to advance his jihadist beliefs and aspirations. Brunson’s captivity and the menacing threats Erdogan and his representatives keep voicing against him make clear that the long-held Turkish-U.S. alliance is a relic of a past era.
Trump is not walking away from an alliance. He is reconciling America’s Turkish policy with the reality of Turkish-U.S. relations.
Brunson’s life is in jeopardy. He is in danger because Turkey is a hostage-taking, jihadist tyranny that supports terror organizations and indoctrinates its people to hate Americans, Christians, Jews, Kurds, Yazidis, Alevis, and whomever else Erdogan decides to hate.
The safest way to save Brunson’s life is not to bow to Erdogan’s demands. It is by making the cost of taking Brunson’s life too great for even Erdogan to bear. You don’t do that by pretending away difficult realities. You do it by acknowledging and acting on them.
It is impossible to know how the current crisis in Turkish-U.S. relations will pan out. But what is clear enough is after stubbornly clinging to a policy based on refusing to read the writing on the walls in relation to Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman Turkey, Pastor Brunson’s persecution is forcing Washington finally to face the truth about Turkey, and adapt its policies to align with that truth.