Prisoners’ Diplomacy Between Turks, Americans

Tuesday, 7 August, 2018 - 14:00 Issue Number [14497]

There are around 18 Americans in Turkey’s prisons and, in return, a prominent Turkish banker is imprisoned in the US over money laundering charges.

Last month, President Donald Trump and his vice president warned via Twitter that the US will impose economic sanctions on Turkey unless it releases the American pastor detained in Turkey. Despite the disputes, Trump mediated with Israel to release a Turkish woman who was accused of delivering money to the Hamas Movement.

The Israeli press did not like this and accused Netanyahu of submitting to Trump’s demand when he spoke with him over the phone on July 14 as the Turkish woman was released two days later and allowed to travel for nothing in return. The more interesting chapter in this prisoners’ crisis is Washington’s dismissal of charges and release of 11 of Erdogan’s bodyguards who were accused of beating up protestors during his visit to Washington on May 12.

There is still Turkey’s most wanted man Sheikh Fethullah Gulen whom the Turkish government wants Washington to extradite and who currently lives in Pennsylvania. Gulen, who is accused of planning the coup attempt, is the leader of an Islamic group that resembles the Muslim Brotherhood and that was an ally of the ruling party until their conflict in the recent phase.

Diplomacy is in crisis, and the temporary prisoners’ crisis is not separate from deeper and more strategic disputes such as Turkey’s purchase of advanced F-35 jets. The White House has, in response to Turks flirting with the Russians to put hands on the S-400 missile system, set hard conditions on the deal.

I have not seen a relationship get more complicated than the American-Turkish relationship, although it is supposed to be easy considering the NATO bond which they share. The temporary disputes can be easily resolved especially since Erdogan became a ruler with wider jurisdictions following the constitutional amendments and which no Turkish leader has enjoyed since the military rule.

Ankara’s refusal to release the American pastor benefits the American presidency in its electoral campaign which promised its hardcore evangelical supporters that it will not be silent if Turkey does not release him. When the Turkish authorities made limited concessions and released the pastor from prison and put him under house arrest, the American president and his vice president, who barely shows in disputes of international relations, responded to the move via Twitter and they both warned Turkey of major economic sanctions unless he is released.

The Turkish crisis may develop and become part of the parliamentary electoral campaign for the elections which will be held in November, i.e. the next three months will witness more American sanctions against the Turkish economy which greatly relies on its trade with the West. Diplomatic relations further complicated after the Americans punished two Turkish ministers by sanctioning them and freezing their accounts in the US. The Turks may compromise to release the prominent Turkish banker in Washington in exchange for the evangelical pastor who has now been released from prison and placed under house arrest in Izmir.

Imprisoned banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who was the vice president of Turkey’s state-controlled Halkbank is serving a three-year prison sentence in the US over charges of laundering Iranian funds. What’s a bigger problem for Turkey is Washington’s intention to levy the bank a huge fine worth billions as this will distort the bank’s reputation and threaten its activities.

This is the result of the troubled relation between Ankara and Washington. The Turks lost their two important friends in the American government, Michael Flynn, the national security advisor, and who resigned amid a scandal linked to receiving money from Turkey, and Tillerson, the US Secretary of State who is close to Qatar, which is Turkey’s ally, and who also quit.