The Release of Andrew Brunson May Be an Opportunity to Reset U.S.-Turkish Relations

October 23, 2018 | Soner Cagaptay
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Last week, Ankara—likely trying to make the most of Saudi Arabia’s killing of the pro-Turkish journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul—set free Andrew Brunson, a pastor from North Carolina, after imprisoning him for two years on trumped-up charges. Turkey, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule, has in recent years moved in an Islamist and undemocratic direction, supported Hamas, broken longstanding ties with Israel, flirted with Russia and even Iran, and generally undermined its once-firm alliance with the U.S. To Soner Cagaptay, Brunson’s release could lead to a broader thaw in Turco-American ties, especially since the two countries share many interests:

Turkey borders Iran, Iraq, Syria (including territory until recently held by Islamic State), and Russia across the Black Sea. It’s much easier, less cumbersome, and less costly, to implement U.S. policies regarding those countries and entities with Turkey on board. And to be sure, Turkey needs the United States as well. . . .

Yet while, Brunson’s release is a good step toward normal relations, there is plenty more to do. Most immediately, Congress has threatened sanctions if Ankara goes ahead with its plans to purchase in 2019 the Russian S-400 missile-defense system, a move that [violates Turkey’s commitments as a NATO member]. To cement his reset with President Trump, Erdogan should reconsider his decision regarding the S-400 system. . . .

Donald Trump, [for his part], needs to reconsider U.S. policy regarding cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), an armed group that Washington has relied on to fight Islamic State (IS). The YPG is an offshoot of the PKK, a terrorist entity that Turkey has been fighting for decades. After defeating IS, YPG—a group with a Marxist pedigree—took over vast Sunni Arab areas of Syria. Washington needs to empower Sunni Arabs in Syria if it doesn’t want IS, which feeds on Sunni Muslim resentment over political exclusion, to return. . . . .

Erdogan should continue to support Trump’s new Syria envoy in pushing back against Iran, Russia, and the Assad regime there. If Assad is brought to justice, millions of Syrians brutalized by him during the war will have closure, also shutting the door to IS’s return. Erdogan can help Trump beyond Syria to isolate Iran. For example, Turkey could join U.S. economic sanctions against Iran, which are taking a toll on the regime in Tehran.

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