Recep Tayyip Erdogan could teach Donald Trump a few things about bullying. The Turkish leader has largely accomplished in his own country what Trump’s critics think the U.S. president would like to do in the United States: taking control of its politics and media and masterfully directing the national narrative. Since a failed military coup in July 2016, he’s shut down one media outlet after another; last month, Erdogan’s cronies appeared to assume control of Turkey’s last independent newspaper.
When it comes to the international arena, however, Erdogan is getting out-narrated and out-bullied. Or so it seems at first glance. The latest instance came Friday, when, after two years of bluster and falsified evidence, Turkey abruptly released an imprisoned U.S. pastor, Andrew Brunson. It was a tacit concession by the Turkish president that his country could no longer stand the pain inflicted by U.S. sanctions—which Trump doubled in August on aluminum and steel, in addition to withholding delivery on 100 F-35 jets. The Turkish lira had been plummeting since August, and the Turkish economy may already be in recession.
But who really won this week? Senior Trump administration officials were happy about Brunson’s release, which they touted as a triumph for the president’s tough stand, including his imposition of sanctions on Turkey’s justice and interior ministers. But U.S. officials had little time to celebrate. That’s because they were struggling the same week with Turkey’s carefully orchestrated release of details in the horrific case of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist allegedly killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
The torrent of leaks from Turkey, culminating in a stomach-turning story in the Washington Post late Thursday that detailed audio and video recordings of Khashoggi’s alleged torture and murder, has embarrassed Trump during a mostly high-riding month of news. Only days after his big win in securing Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court—when he lined up the entire Republican Party behind the justice—Trump faced bipartisan Senate resistance to his embrace of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is believed to be responsible for ordering Khashoggi’s alleged murder.
Even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Kavanaugh’s most ferocious defender, turned his ire on the president, joining with Democrats to pressure Trump into invoking the Magnitsky Act, under which the president can impose sanctions on human rights violators.
“If in fact this is true that he was abducted and killed at the direction of the Saudi government, it will destroy the relationship as we know it,” Graham told Fox News on Friday.
That is the last thing Trump wants to hear. On Thursday, the president told reporters that the life of a single journalist was not enough to sacrifice the lucrative U.S.-Saudi relationship, including a much-hyped $110 billion arms deal negotiated by his son-in-law (and Mohammed bin Salman’s friend), Jared Kushner. “This took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen,” he said. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country.”
Some diplomats and analysts see in the leak campaign a clever Erdogan ploy to drive a wedge into what he sees as the worrisome alliance between Washington and Saudi Arabia, both of which have been aligned against Turkey in the past.
“It’s interesting to see them leak to try to draw in the United States to solve their problem. They don’t want to take on Saudi Arabia on their own,” said Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch added: “Many people in the U.S. government were counting on this [Khashoggi’s disappearance] to remain an unsolved mystery. Turkey has raised the stakes for the U.S.”
The U.S.-Turkey relationship has been in a downward spiral since the coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016. Afterward, the Turkish leader detained and arrested U.S. citizens and Turkish nationals working in U.S. consulates in Turkey over alleged links to Fethullah Gulen, an anti-Erdogan cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. Erdogan suspects Washington of cultivating both the Gulen movement, which the Turkish government has labeled the Fethullahist Terror Organization, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a secular Kurdish group that has been fighting Turkey since 1984. In retaliation, Turkish authorities in 2016 arrested Brunson, a 50-year-old Christian pastor from North Carolina who had lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, and falsely accused him of ties to Gulen.
It’s not clear what, if anything, Erdogan gets in return for releasing Brunson, but that should become clearer in coming weeks. Washington has not yet agreed to lift sanctions, and Turkey must also deal with new bipartisan legislation coming out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that threatens to cut off aid to the country from international financial institutions. “Moving on, we should be watching for which of these measures are reversed to see what the provisions of the deal are,” said Merve Tahiroglu, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
All in all, Burns said, both the Trump administration and Turkey have played the diplomatic brinkmanship game well, getting some of what they want without going over the precipice. “I must say I think the Trump administration deserves credit for having stood by Pastor Brunson,” Burns said. “They’ve been firm when they had to be firm.”
At the same time, the administration has maintained dialogue, preventing Erdogan from falling fully into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s camp after the Turkish leader’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which stunned NATO, of which Turkey is a member.
“It’s not an easy relationship. Both countries know they need each other, especially vis-à-vis Syria,” Burns said.