Relations between Turkey and the United States have been severely damaged after Turkey arrested a number of U.S. citizens for their alleged ties to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Gulen network. Among the arrested Americans is pastor Andrew Brunson, who had led a Presbyterian congregation in Izmir in last 20 years. Pastor Brunson has become a symbolic figure. He has been in prison since October 2016. The Turkish government accuses him colluding with the PKK and the followers of Turkish-cleric-in-exile Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of fomenting a failed coup in Turkey in 2016. As of this week, a Turkish court has decided to keep Brunson behind bars.
As many Turkey observers noted, the accusations against Pastor Brunson have no substance. Rather, the entire court process is a part of Turkish President Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy.
Political imprisonment of foreigners and their use as pawns of hostage diplomacy have been a common practice in Turkey in recent years. Before launching the hostage diplomacy, Erdogan prepared the legal ground by passing a law in 2014, which allows the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (which is abbreviated MIT) to bypass the court process and negotiate swap deals on foreign nationals. Since 2014, the Turkish intelligence agency has conducted a number of deals with foreign governments and entities, including Iran, ISIS, Kosovo, Gabon and Germany. In return for favors for the Erdogan regime, MIT handed over a number of foreign nationals to these countries.
Because of Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy, Turkey has become a trap for foreigners. Whenever the Erdogan regime thinks foreigners can be useful for a hostage diplomacy, the foreigners are arrested and used in hostage deals.
For instance, German journalist Deniz Yucel was one of the high-profile hostage that Erdogan took and used to reach a deal with Germany. Most recently two Greek soldiers were arrested to be used in hostage diplomacy.
Pastor Brunson is one of the trapped prey for Erdogan for Erdogan’s purposes of hostage diplomacy. In fact, Erdogan has openly spilled out what he wants for the pastor. Erdogan said “hand me over the pastor [Mr. Gulen] you keep in your country and get your pastor.”
Many U.S. institutions have been working for Pastor Brunson’s release. President Donald Trump openly requested his release. But Erdogan regime has not released him.
When the Erdogan regime arrested Yucel, the German journalist, and six other German citizens, Erdogan made high-pitched threats to keep Yucel in prison. Yet German officials managed to free Yucel and the other Germans. In fact, the release of Yucel was so bizarre that Mr. Yucel was himself could not believe. After his release, DYucel posted a video on his social media account saying “while I was leaving the prison, officials gave me a court document that shows a judge ruled two days ago to keep me in prison. Despite that, I was released. Even I did not understand why I was detained and released.”
German media reported that the release of Yucel was based on an arms deal reached between Turkish and German officials.
There are a number of reasons why Germany was more successful in freeing its citizens but not than the United States has been.
First, the leverage that Germany has on Turkey is much more effective than leverage the United States has. Economically, Germany is the largest trade partner of Turkey in terms of bilateral trade volume. As of June 2017, there were 6,968 German companies active in almost every sector in Turkey. German investments in Turkey in the period of 2002-2017 amounted to $9.07 billion dollars.
Trade volume between Turkey and the United States is equally high but American investment in Turkey is very much concentrated in certain areas, military, high tech, etc.
In addition to bilateral relations, Germany is the locomotive of European Union. Turkey’s main export market is the European Union (44.5 percent).
Erdogan sees the success of the Turkish economy as the key factor for his survival.
The United States retains some military leverage over Turkey through NATO and other institutions, but Erdogan largely evaded such leverage a long time ago.
Second, the approaches and methods that Germany uses against Erdogan are the keys to success. Germany uses leverage for short-term achievements effectively. For instance, when Turkish officials prepared a list of 600 German companies and accused them of sponsoring terrorism. Germany reacted with a threat to stop the flow of investments. Turkish officials immediately apologized and withdrew their list.
Another example of how Germany uses its leverage against Erdogan is related with arms deal. When Turkey launched cross-border operations into Syria back in January 2018, Turkey needed key parts for its military tanks. The timing of Turkey’s need was effectively used by Germany to reach a deal. In return for freeing Deniz Yucel and other German citizens, Germany agreed not to block arms sale to Tukey.
Unlike German officials who prioritize their preferences for the short term and focus on what they want in the short term, U.S. officials and institutions focus on the long-term goal of keeping Turkey on the side of the West, which gives a perfect opportunity for Erdogan to act as a “horse trader” against the United States.
While American officials highly value Turkey-U.S. relations from a long-term strategic perspective, the Erdgoan regime sees this relation from short-term, tactical perspective. Because Erdogan never trusts the United States, and the West for that matter, he focuses on short-term deals. He is not committed a long-term relations. Thus, the U.S. approach does not work effectively.
Last but not least, Turkish bureaucracy, especially Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT), is controlled by pro-Iranian and Eurasianist fractions. They would like to seeh the crack between the United States and Tukey widen. Therefore, they are interested in using the Pastor Brunson case to further separate Turkey from the United States and the West.
In order to not to lose Turkey as a strategic country and to get Brunson back, American officials have several tools that they can utilize.
First, American officials can effectively use the sanction option, which is on the table. However sanctions should not be directed at Turkish people. Instead, sanctions should target the strategic assets of Erdogan and his political circls. For instance, Erdogan and his associates are very much active in international shipping business. Many of them are operating in the black market. Launching an investigation on the black-market shipping operations of the Erdogan family would be much more effective than any negotiation tactics.
Second, Ameriacn officials appear to calculate the upcoming elections and don’t want to influence election results in favor of Erdogan. However, it is a wrong to assume that Erdogan may lose. The election will very likely be rigged. Thus, the United States should loudly insist on free and fair elections but prepare for post-election scenarios. The United States should openly declare that a rigged election result will not be accepted.
Third, Erdogan’s weakest point is his illegal operations conducted by Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT) around the world. From supplying armaments to armed groups, to allowing Iran’s to smuggle nuclear material, to money laundering, to kidnapping, MIT has conducted a number of illegal operations around the world. MIT has been very much penetrated into Turkish community and using Turkish institutions, such as mosques, schools, associations, media outlets, etc. (Recognizing this, Germany has taken various measures, including arresting MIT officials in Germany to limit Turkey’s intelligence operations in Europe).
Targeting the Erdogan regime’s revenues and intelligence operations around the world would bring Erdogan regime to a negotiation table. Just like Germans did, American officials could use their capacity to force Erdogan to negotiate as well.
Dr. Emrullah Uslu is a Turkish academic and journalist in exile. Currently, he is a faculty at the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia International University, Fairfax, Virginia. He holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science from the University of Utah and master’s degree in in Journalism from Ankara University in Turkey.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.