Turkey, US play "Let's Make (Another) Deal" to free Brunson

Time to take a look behind Curtain #2? Recep Tayyip Erdogan welched on the first try at a deal to free Pastor Andrew Brunson. If at first you don’t succeed, however, try shuffling the deck for another point of leverage. That appears to be Turkey’s strategy for resolving a standoff that threatens to demolish the relationship between the westernmost and easternmost members of NATO:

The outlines of a possible deal, possibly including an exchange of Brunson for a convicted Turkish national in the United States, are apparent to both sides, and both have expressed some optimism.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke at last week’s meeting of Asian states in Singapore and spoke by telephone Monday in what State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said was a “positive sign.” On Tuesday, as a Turkish team led by the No. 2 officials from the Foreign and Finance ministries headed to Washington, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara tweeted that “the United States continues to be a solid friend and ally of Turkey.” …

As both sides return to the drawing board, Turkish officials are seeking the release of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish banker convicted in May of taking part in a massive scheme to violate U.S. sanctions against the purchase of Iranian oil. The high-profile federal trial also involved Halkbank, a Turkish state bank, and Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab, who pleaded guilty and cooperated with authorities.

Atilla was sentenced to 32 months, of which, dating from the time of his arrest, he still has nearly a year to serve. Turkey, which has proclaimed his innocence, wants him back.

That’s at least a step in the right direction in regards to Turkish nationals within the US. Turkey originally demanded the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a political foe whom Erdogan wants to blame for the attempted coup. The US has flat-out rejected all demands for extradition or trades involving Gūlen, especially after the purges seen in the wake of the alleged coup. Some suspect that Erdogan staged the coup himself as a way to seize more presidential power, or at the very least exaggerated the scope of the coup plot to serve his own interests. That coup hysteria is what caused Brunson, an apolitical Christian missionary, to get arrested in the first place.

Atilla, on the other hand, is a more reasonable asset for a trade. The US has a mechanism for allowing foreign nationals to serve sentences in their home country, allowing the government to enforce it as seen fit, as the Washington Post notes. The only impediment to using that treaty is that both sides are appealing the case — Atilla on the basis of innocence, and the Department of Justice because of the light sentence Atilla received — and the treaty doesn’t apply to open cases. However, a deal to send Atilla back to Turkey would moot both of the appeals, allowing all parties to close the case and make Atilla eligible for a trade.

Can we trust Erdogan a second time, however? The last deal was a multilateral affair, in which Israel had to act first in its release, after which Erdogan bailed on the deal. The deal described by the Post would be bilateral, which means that the US would be able to structure it better to eliminate the risk of reneging. Also, Erdogan wants his F-35s and other aid and trade with the US, which his welching put at risk. It’s not so much of a case of trust in this instance as it is leverage, and the wisdom to verify anything Erdogan touches rather than take him at his word any longer.

There’s s deal to be had here, if Erdogan wants it. If not, we can continue to make things more unpleasant for him and for Turkey until he does.

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