Turkey turns to medical diplomacy to heal damaged relations

By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Emblazoned with Turkish flags and presidential seals, crates packed with medical equipment are loaded onto planes, part of a major aid campaign by Ankara which has dispatched supplies to dozens of countries since the new coronavirus pandemic erupted.

“There is hope after despair and many suns after darkness,” says a message on every shipment – a line from 13th-century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi, which looks to better days not just in the battle against COVID-19 but also for Turkey’s fraught diplomacy.

With its relations with NATO allies in Europe and the United States darkened by disputes over Russian missile defenses, human rights, and Western sanctions on Iran, Turkey hopes the virus crisis is an opportunity to soothe recent tensions.

Despite battling one of the world’s biggest coronavirus outbreaks at home – where the death toll now exceeds 3,700 -, Turkey has sent medical aid to 61 countries, including the United States, Spain, Italy, France, and Britain.

By its own calculations, Ankara has been the world’s third-biggest aid distributor during the outbreak, sending face masks, protective suits, testing kits, disinfectant, and respirators.

In a letter to President Donald Trump sent with one shipment, President Tayyip Erdogan said he hoped the “spirit of solidarity” Turkey had shown would help U.S. politicians “better understand the strategic importance of our relations”.

Ankara faces potential U.S. sanctions over its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defenses, which it bought last year but has not yet fully deployed. Despite the threat of sanctions, it says the systems will ultimately be activated.

On Saturday, Erdogan also called on the European Union to increase its cooperation with Turkey in light of the support Ankara provided member states during the outbreak. “I hope the EU now understands that we are all in the same boat,” he said.

Turkey remains a candidate for EU membership but the process has long stalled amid disputes over Turkey’s human rights record, the handling of Syrian refugees, and gas exploration around Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean.

PROBLEMS PERSIST

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the aid initiative had lifted the mood with Washington.

“Has there been a positive atmosphere after the latest aid Turkey sent? Yes, and there is a positive atmosphere in the eyes of the (U.S.) public too,” Cavusoglu said, adding however that “the core problems with the United States still persist”.

Turkish aid shipments were also sent to Libya, Iraq, Iran, the Palestinian Authority, Russia, the Balkans and to China, where the new coronavirus first emerged.

Turkey says it has also sent aid to Israel, despite tensions over Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and the status of Jerusalem. Both sides expelled their top diplomats in 2018.

Turkey has sent aid to 15 countries in Africa, where it is seeking to expand influence and commercial ties.

Not all aid shipments have gone smoothly. A commercial shipment of ventilators to Spain was delayed over export licenses. Another commercial shipment of 400,000 protective suits to Britain was criticized after some failed quality checks, but both Ankara and London said that was not a government-to-government shipment, and that there had been no problem with aid sent directly by Turkey.

While the diplomatic outreach may have brought a change of tone to some of Ankara’s troubled international relations, analysts say lasting results are unlikely without concrete steps to address fundamental differences.

“No amount of goodwill, no amount of medical diplomacy will alter the negative repercussions that Turkey’s deployment of the S-400s has produced in Washington,” said Fadi Hakura, consulting fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

“If Turkey wants to curry favor with Washington, it has to terminate the S-400s.”

Gonul Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies in Washington, said Turkey’s differences with the EU would also not be resolved overnight.

“While some countries have welcomed Turkish aid, Ankara’s problems with its neighbors and Western allies are too serious to be resolved by a few symbolic steps,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Daren Butler and Gareth Jones)

Trump thanks Turkey for pastor’s release, denies cutting deal

U.S. President Donald Trump closes his eyes in prayer along with Pastor Andrew Brunson, after his release from two years of Turkish detention, in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

By Julia Harte and Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Saturday the release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson after two years in Turkish custody was a “tremendous step” toward improved relations with Turkey, but he denied cutting a deal with Ankara.

“The only deal, if you could call it a deal, is a psychological one. We feel much differently about Turkey today than we did yesterday, and I think we have a chance of really becoming much closer to Turkey,” Trump told reporters during an Oval Office meeting with Brunson.

A Turkish court on Friday sentenced Brunson, who had been charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of a U.S.-based Muslim cleric, to more than three years in prison but said he would not serve any further time because he had already been detained since October 2016.

The pastor’s release could signal a thaw in relations between the two NATO allies, which worsened in August after a deal to free Brunson fell apart and Trump authorized a doubling of duties on aluminum and steel imported from Turkey, helping drive the lira currency down against the dollar.

Trump did not pledge to lift the sanctions but said he welcomed an end to the “harsh relationship” the countries had over the past two months.

In front of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, U.S. lawmakers and Brunson’s family, the pastor knelt beside Trump on the floor of the Oval Office, placed a hand on his shoulder, and prayed for God to give him “supernatural wisdom.”

Trump also thanked President Tayyip Erdogan at Saturday’s meeting for helping secure Brunson’s release, despite a curt Twitter post from the Turkish leader earlier on Saturday repeating that Brunson’s release was a court’s decision to make, not his.

“Dear Mr. President, as I always pointed out, the Turkish judiciary reached its decision independently,” Erdogan wrote on his Twitter account. “I hope that the United States and Turkey will continue their cooperation as the allies that they are, and fight together against terrorist groups.”

Trump said Brunson’s release “wasn’t easy” for Erdogan.

In response to a question, Trump said the administration is actively working on the status of other imprisoned Americans and government employees in Turkey. “We are working very hard,” he said.

Senator Thom Tillis, who was at the White House Saturday, previously criticized Turkey for continuing to detain “multiple other U.S. citizens, as well as several Turkish staff of the U.S. diplomatic mission, on scant evidence under the state of emergency.”

Brunson said that U.S. State Department personnel in Turkey are working on behalf of other American prisoners currently in custody. “They were involved very much in advocating for the other prisoners,” Brunson said.

(Reporting by Julia Harte, Timothy Gardner, Roberta Rampton and David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler and Marguerita Choy)

Turkish court rules that U.S. pastor move from jail to house arrest

FILE PHOTO: A prison vehicle, believed to be carrying jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, leaves from the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

By Ezgi Erkoyun and Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Turkish court ruled on Wednesday that an American pastor be transferred from jail to house arrest, his lawyer said, after nearly two years in detention on terrorism charges in a case which has strained ties between Ankara and Washington.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has worked in Turkey for more than 20 years, was detained in October 2016 and indicted on charges of helping the group which Ankara says was behind a failed military coup earlier that year.

Brunson’s lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt confirmed Turkish media reports that the court had ruled for him to be moved to house arrest. He will have to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and is banned from leaving the country, Halavurt said.

A week ago the same court rejected a call by Brunson’s defense for his release. State-owned Anadolu news agency said the court decided, after re-evaluating the case, that he could leave prison on health grounds and because he would be under effective judicial control.

It said Brunson’s defense had been completed and evidence for the case was almost all collected.

Brunson’s detention deepened a rift between NATO allies Washington and Ankara – also at odds over the Syrian war and Turkey’s plan to buy missile defenses from Russia – and financial markets took his transfer order as a positive sign.

The Turkish lira strengthened to 4.8325 against the dollar from 4.8599 before the report. Shares in Halkbank, whose former deputy general manager was convicted in January of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran, jumped 12 percent.

Brunson was indicted on charges of helping supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric who Turkish authorities say masterminded the coup attempt against President Tayyip Erdogan in which 250 people were killed. He was also charged with supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants.

The pastor, who denies the charges, faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty.

Erdogan has previously linked his fate to that of Gulen, whose extradition from the United States has been a long-held demand of Turkish authorities. Gulen denies any involvement in the coup.

President Donald Trump said in a tweet last week that Brunson was being held hostage and that Erdogan should “do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father”.

The U.S. Senate passed a bill last month including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets because of Brunson’s imprisonment and Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

(Reporting by Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by David Stamp)