US And Turkey “Quietly” Making Progress At “Highest Levels” On Release Of American Pastor

A new report in Middle East Eye says Pastor Andrew Brunson could very soon be released from Turkish detention after months of immense US pressure on Ankara has sent the Turkish lira into a nosedive.

In the past weeks the issue has been out of the public eye compared to the heated and seemingly constant back and forth between US and Turkish leaders concerning the detained American citizen over the summer. 

The new report, citing Turkish and US government sources, suggests the relative cooling down in public statements surrounding Brunson’s fate is due to behind the scenes progress being made in the case. Notably, President Trump did not once mention Turkey or the Brunson issue during his major speech before the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, after being very vocal in prior months. 

Andrew Brunson has been held in Turkey since 2016. Image source: AP

According to Middle East Eye:

But the shrill tone and tit-for-tat tariff slapping has lulled lately.

The calm, according to a Turkish diplomat, comes after Ankara, under pressure to stem the country’s economic freefall, told Washington that the conflict could only be resolved if the public squabbling stopped.

The Turkish diplomat said further, “We knew we had to solve the problem and normalize our relations with the US for the sake of Turkey’s economy, but it was not possible to do that amid challenging statements.” He continued, “So we both decided to prevent any more escalation and solve the problem quietly.”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan mentioned in statements this week that Pastor Brunson’s fate is a judicial matter, distancing himself from the contentious issue which effectively led to a summer long diplomatic war with Washington, resulting in the Turkish lira losing more than 45 percent of its value this year.

There was a moment of hope this week, however, when on Monday US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the UN General Assembly that Brunson could be released this month, immediately after which the lira value jumped to a one-week high.

“As the president, I don’t have the right to order his release. Our judiciary is independent. Let’s wait and see what the court will decide,” Erdogan told Reuters on Wednesday. Erdogan also claimed the severely ailing economy had nothing to do with the diplomatic feud with the US: “The Brunson case is not even closely related to Turkey’s economy. The current economic challenges have been exaggerated more than necessary and Turkey will overcome these challenges with its own resources,” he said.

Meanwhile a US diplomat confirmed that the Brunson case is being discussed at “the highest levels” between Washington and Ankara. 

“There is a will on both sides to solve this problem,” the American diplomat told Middle East Eye. “We both want to leave this problem behind and focus on other areas to further our cooperation; especially Manbij, trade relations, and so on.”

Pastor Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina was detained starting in 2016, and is undergoing trial in Turkey while under “house arrest” and is facing charges of espionage and aiding terrorist groups after being accused of cooperating with “Kurdish terrorists” and colluding with the Gulenist Islamic movement to mount a failed coup against Erdogan in 2016. He faces up to 35 years in prison if found guilty, and has now been in Turkish custody for two years. 

Trump has made it a personal mission to free Brunson, previously issuing statements via Twitter condemning his detention. For example last July, Trump stated, while addressing the Turkish president directly“A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long. Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him.”

Congress has also held up transfer of F-35 fighters which were set to be delivered to Turkey, citing its horrible human rights record and the detention of Brunson. 

It appears that Turkey has now been brought to breaking point as it seeks to revive the nosediving lira, but will seek to keep its acquiescence to the White House as quiet as possible.