The United States’ anger over Turkey’s holding an American pastor hostage for close to two years has brought the two countries onto a collision course. How this plays out will be a valuable guide for other countries – including Greece – whose citizens are being held by Turkey. For Ankara, taking foreign nationals hostage is a traditional means of diplomacy. Those dealing with Ankara ought to know that the legal and ethical dimensions of the issue are secondary to Turkey getting what it wants.
Andrew Brunson is a 50-year-old pastor of a small Evangelical Presbyterian congregation in Izmir. He has lived in Turkey for 23 years. He was detained in October 2016, a few months after the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has been charged, apparently on the basis of an unknown witness’s secret testimony, with “support of a terrorist organization” and “political or military espionage.” Other American citizens, including US diplomatic employees, who are of Turkish descent, are also being held in Turkey, as are nationals of other countries. It would appear, though, that the detention of an Evangelical Christian American is an especially sensitive issue for President Donald Trump, who draws much support from that group of voters, and for Vice President Mike Pence, who is an Evangelical Christian himself. Pence made this abundantly clear on July 26. “To President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message, on behalf of the president of the United States of America. Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences,” he declared at a conference on religious freedom in Washington. “If Turkey does not take immediate action to free Pastor Andrew Brunson and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until this innocent man of faith is free.” Indeed, the US Treasury Department announced sanctions against Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu. The Turks reciprocated with action against the two ministers’ US counterparts. Both sets of sanctions are purely academic (freezing the Turkish ministers’ assets in America and vice versa), but they are very important at the symbolic and economic levels. At the news that the two NATO allies had come to such a point, the Turkish lira kept dropping to new lows against the dollar.
In addition to Brunson’s detention in itself, the Turkish government’s behavior has further incensed Washington. According to the Bloomberg news agency, while backroom negotiations were taking place to exchange the pastor for a Turkish woman held by Israel (on charges of aiding Hamas), a reduction of the fine imposed on Turkiye Halk Bankasi for violating the international embargo against Iran, and the repatriation of a bank official convicted in America (so that he could complete his term in Turkey), Ankara reneged on the deal. Israel released Ebru Ozkan but suddenly Ankara demanded that the United States drop the bank case completely. Also, instead of releasing Brunson, an Izmir court ordered that he be moved from prison to house arrest.
Turkish officials have every reason to believe that such behavior works in their favor. A few months ago, they released a German journalist in exchange for the lifting of sanctions that Berlin had imposed. Since March 2, Turkey has held hostage two Greek soldiers, Lieutenant Angelos Mitretodis and Sergeant Dimitris Kouklatzis, who had strayed across the border in bad weather, in an obvious effort to press for the extradition of eight Turkish military men accused of taking part in the 2016 coup.
Turkey presses weaker countries with threats or the use of force, and stronger ones by exploiting their concern for their citizens. But it goes one step further, relying on its own weakness to protect it in its dealings with stronger countries. For example, in the case of the United States, Turkey cannot hurt the superpower without causing greater harm to itself, so even while it infuriates Washington it relies on American concerns that if they retaliate very strongly they will cause damage to what is, ostensibly, a NATO ally. In a further complication, the American sanctions have prompted even opposition parties in the Turkish assembly to show their support for Erdogan. This means that it will be almost impossible for Erdogan to climb down and seek a compromise. (It would be especially interesting to see what would happen if Turkey were to adopt an opposition party’s demand for the Trump Towers in Istanbul to be seized.)
Nearly 100 years ago, in March 1920, when Britain and other victors in World War I had sent occupying forces to the Ottoman Empire, which had sided with Germany, there was a very interesting case of hostage taking by Turks. While the victorious nations put pressure on the sultan and his government, rebel nationalist forces under Mustafa Kemal disarmed and detained a British detachment at Erzurum. The 30-or-so soldiers had been sent to disarm Ottoman forces in eastern Turkey. They were held hostage until November 1921, “a long period of great hardship, suffering and persecution,” as their commanding officer and fellow hostage, Colonel Alfred Rawlinson, put it in an official report. The men were “cut off from all communication and starved, persecuted and frozen.” In March 1921, the British and the Turkish nationalists agreed to exchange the British hostages for Turkish prisoners on Malta, except for “only certain Turks who were held for trial there for grave offenses against the laws of war, or for participation in massacres,” as the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, told the House of Lords in November 1921. Then the Turks reneged and demanded that all Turkish prisoners be released. “The total exchange forced upon us by the mala fides of the Turks eventually turned out to be 118 Turkish prisoners returned in exchange for about 30 British prisoners,” Curzon said. A few months later, the Turks got what they wanted. Even as a defeated party in the Great War, they had exploited Britain’s concern for its soldiers for maximum gains.
Countries whose citizens are held hostage in Turkey must be aware that if they do not forge a united front they will be defeated. Greece and Germany separately cannot succeed, the European Union cannot succeed, perhaps even the United States cannot succeed on its own. The Turkish government will let time drag on, knowing that other governments’ concern for their citizens works in Ankara’s favor. Only joint and decisive action through the United Nations can impose an end to such behavior.