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The momentous court case of Pastor Andrew Brunson came to a head on Friday October 12 as the high criminal court in Izmir gave the American a three year sentence and then released him. Brunson has been the heart of the tensions between Ankara and Washington. He was detained in 2016 after the attempted coup and the government in Turkey accused him of being linked to terrorists.
But on Friday the pastor finally got a positive day in court. After being released to house arrest in July the Trump administration had put increasing pressure on Ankara to release the pastor fully. But Turkey said that the court case had to proceed. In the afternoon on Friday three witnesses retracted accusations against Brunson in court which paved the way for the pastor’s release.” Regip Soylu, watching the case for Daily Sabah tweeted at 4:30 that the pastor was sentenced to time served and a suspended sentence of three years.
This is a big development for the US and Turkey. It allows both countries to save face and claim victory. US President Donald Trump can bring the pastor home and Turkey can claim that it followed the law. The reality is that on Thursday rumors of an agreement were released to media in the US, so the full details of what happened are unclear. There had been rumors in July that the two countries were seeking a way out of the situation.
The court case is part of a large struggle in Turkey. Ankara claims that the US is working with “terrorists” in Syria. This is because the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition has been working with the Syrian Democratic Forces to liberate eastern Syria. Among the constutents of the SDF are the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Turkey claims they are linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Since 2015 the YPG have been America’s best allies against ISIS.
Turkey has also accused the US of sheltering a cleric named Fethullah Gulen who Turkey’s government says was behind the 2016 coup. Pastor Brunson became a pawn in these cases whereby Ankara accused him of being linked to both the PKK and Gulent. It appears that the larger problem was Turkey’s anger over the US role in eastern Syria. Turkey has threatened to intervene in Manbij with US forces are located with the SDF. On October 10 Ankara said it had postponed any new cooperation with Manbij.
However the disappearance of a Saudi journalist named Jamal Khashoggi presented a new chance for Turkey and the US to work together. Vice-President Mike Pence offered to send the FBI to help investigate. Now the US Congress and members of the administration are pressuring Saudi Arabia as it becomes increasingly likely that Riyadh was responsible for the disappearance of the journalist when he visited Saudi’s consulate in Istanbul.
What comes next is unclear. Turkey and the US could patch up relations. The US State Department and Defense Department values Turkey as a NATO ally. But both the Obama and Trump administrations have been critical of Ankara for other reasons. Turkey’s support for the Syrian rebels became controversial as some of the groups became more extreme. And the US wants to revive eastern Syria and pressure Iran to leave Syria. Turkey is walking a tightrope in Syria as well, trying to preserve a ceasefire in Idlib with Russia. So Turkey wants quiet and an improved economy. It might be able to use the Brunson case to get that if the Trump administration decides to see Ankara in a positive light.