After months of the rift between Trump and Erdogan, the latter finally capitulated and thus Andrew Brunson, a pastor from North Carolina was allowed to return home.
In the purge that followed the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, 70,000 have been arrested so far. Andrew Brunson was one of them, he was arrested on charges of supporting the Gülen movement and having ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. There were other charges as well such as spying for the US government and planning the failed coup.
A Turkish court sentenced him to a little over 3 years. The United States demanded the release of all US citizens in Turkish prisons but especially stressed Pastor Brunson’s case. When Erdogan did not comply, the US levied sanctions that created a run on the Turkish Lira. The reverberations of the Turkish currency crisis reached as far as India but Trump did not back down and threatened even tougher steps.
Erdogan at first tried to fight the sanctions, levying duty on American-made goods. As the Turkish economic crisis worsened, Erdogan looked for a way to release Pastor Brunson and save face at the same time.
He had cultivated himself as a fighter so he couldn’t release the Pastor without damaging his own image. Thus came his comments stressing the impartiality of Turkish courts. At one point, he even said that everyone must respect and comply with the courts’ rulings.
Finally, a Turkish court ordered the release of Pastor Brunson. This was the only way Erdogan could ease the economic crisis facing his government and save face even though it is beyond dispute that the Turkish judiciary does as Erdogan wills.
The release of Pastor Brunson, though a welcome development, could have an adverse effect on the inquiry into Jamal Khashoggi’s case. Erdogan’s capitulation shows that he feels vulnerable when it comes to the Turkish economy. One of the more potent ways to get Erdogan to agree with you is by taking tough economic measures.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia agreeing to a joint investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance alone raise doubts about its’ legitimacy. Erdogan might not refuse to tip the inquiry in Saudis’ favor if they threatened economic sanctions.
He is already showing signs of yielding. The leaks from his officials to the media rather than outright official statements show that he wants the US, UK, France, or Germany to take the lead on this issue.
His silence on this issue is deafening. If something as outrageous as Khashoggi’s possible murder inside a consulate in Turkey mattered to Erdogan as much as it should, he would have long spoken out publicly as forcefully as he has rebuked Chancellor Merkel in the past.
Turkey has significant trade with Saudi Arabia. The Turkish economy was struggling before Trump’s sanctions and since then, it has worsened. If Saudi Arabia were to impose sanctions on Turkey with whatever pretext, it would hurt their economy even more.
Erdogan built himself as the man to deliver Turkey from its’ economic woes. For some time, he did well but now for a long time, he has mismanaged the Turkish economy and soured relations that could have made Turkey a member of the European Union, opening up European lands for the Turkish youth out of work.
So right now, Turkey is vulnerable to both economic and political bullying. The Khashoggi matter is too important to sacrifice to petty regional politics.
If Khashoggi’s killers do not face the music, it will send a signal to despots everywhere. The growing trend of persecution of critics and reporters will worsen.
Hoping that Erdogan would take the right stance on an issue for once is wishful thinking. The European Union, United States, or the United Nations must take the lead. They are the only ones in a position to confront Saudi Arabia. That is part of the reason why Saudis targeted Khashoggi in Turkey and not in the United States, where he was a legal resident.
By taking it up as a basic human rights issue, which it is, we minimize the extent of pressure that Saudis can put on Erdogan thus ensuring justice to Jamal Khashoggi, his fiancée, colleagues, friends, family, and admirers around the world.