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US response muted as Turkey gives consulate employee harsh prison sentence

A Turkish staff member of the US Consulate in Istanbul has been handed nearly nine years in prison in what some analysts suggest is a sign that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's "new era" in US-Turkish relations will be one of increasing US leniency.

A Turkish court has sentenced an employee of the US Consulate in Istanbul to nearly nine years in prison only days after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed what he called a new era in US-Turkish relations.

Metin Topuz, a Turkish citizen who served as a liaison between the US Drug Enforcement Agency and the Turkish police for three decades, was convicted of “aiding an armed terrorist organization.” An appeals court is due to decide whether to uphold the sentence.

Topuz, who has remained in jail since his arrest in October 2017, is one of three US consulate employees targeted by the Turkish government since the failed July 2016 coup to overthrow Erdogan. The US government has called them political “hostages” and demanded their immediate release.

Hamza Ulucay, a Kurdish translator at the US consular mission in Adana, was arrested in February 2017 on charges of membership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party. Mete Canturk, another Istanbul consulate staffer who worked with the Turkish police, was placed under house arrest in January 2018. Both Canturk and Topuz are accused of links to the US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey says engineered the abortive coup. All three have protested their innocence.

Ulucay was freed on the day of his January 2019 conviction of “knowingly and willingly aiding an armed terror organization,” though the time he had already served was less than his 4.5-year sentence. It was therefore expected the Topuz would be freed today as well. The US Embassy in Ankara aired its disappointment in a series of tweets, saying, “We have seen no credible evidence to support this conviction and hope it will be swiftly overturned.”

Several hours later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a similarly measured statement calling the decision "deeply troubling" and the charges against Topuz "baseless." The conviction, he said, "undermines confidence in Turkey's institutions and the critical trust at the foundation of Turkish-American relations."

The reaction is markedly milder than the visa sanctions the United States had slapped on Turkey when Topuz was first arrested and speaks to the new balance that has emerged between the NATO allies. The sanctions were lifted in December following Turkey’s apparent promise to free the man. But soon after, Canturk was arrested as well, despite US warnings that it would impose sanctions on Turkish officials deemed responsible for the employees’ detentions.

In what may be a measure of Erdogan’s conviction that President Donald Trump will continue to leave Turkey off the hook, he declared in a June 8 interview following a telephone call with Trump, “To be honest, after our conversation tonight, a new era can begin between the United States and Turkey.” He did not elaborate.

After another phone call between the pair in October last year, Trump ordered US troops to withdraw from northeast Syria, effectively greenlighting Turkey’s assault against the Pentagon’s Syrian Kurdish allies. The move provoked congressional fury and calls for sanctions, forcing Trump to reverse his decision and keep around 500 US forces to protect oil fields in the northeast that help bankroll the Kurdish-led administration.

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes Washington’s tepid response may be related to the consulate detainees not being Americans. “It’s quite remarkable to me despite the great friendship between Erdogan and Trump, the US administration has not secured Topuz’ release, unlike Brunson and Golge,” Aydintasbas told Al-Monitor. She was referring to North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson and the NASA scientist and dual US Turkish citizen Serkan Golge, who were also arrested for alleged roles in the coup. Brunson was freed after Trump threatened to wreck the Turkish economy via Twitter, sending the Turkish lira into a tailspin. Golge was freed in May 2019 after three years of imprisonment. Canturk, the Istanbul consulate worker, was freed from house arrest but is still being prosecuted.

“The fact that Washington hasn’t prioritized Topuz’ release in bilateral discussions may have to do with the fact that he isn’t a US citizen, which sends a very chilling message to other Turkish employees at US diplomatic missions in Turkey,” Aydintasbas observed.

Part of Erdogan’s self-assurance stems from Turkey’s recent military gains in Libya, where its intervention on the side of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord resulted in a humiliating defeat of eastern warlord Khalifa Hifter. A former CIA asset who was being backed by Russia, the UAE, Egypt and France, Hifter was forced to call off a more than year-long campaign to capture Tripoli and retreat from a string of towns and bases after Turkey sent in drones, heavy weapons and its Syrian rebel proxies in a massive counterattack that began in April.

Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor at St. Lawrence University and a senior non-resident fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, said, “Erdogan believes that a page is turning with the West in the sense that the West is finally coming to terms with a Turkey that can stand on its own two feet and aggressively defend its interest."

Eissenstat continued in emailed comments to Al-Monitor, “In this sense he believes the improvement will result in a better relationship because the US and Europe will be less condescending in their response to Turkey. The fact that the United States backed off sanctions, is, in fact, a reflection of a new, more balanced relationship.”

For a while it seemed like Turkey would not, however, manage to avert sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act that were finalized by Congress in December over Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles. Turkey bought itself time by parking the Russian kit in a warehouse in April, an idea touted by Trump confidant Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC, though Turkish officials insist that the measure was due to COVID-19 and that the system will be activated. Turkey has already been effectively sanctioned over the purchase, with Congress prohibiting the transfer of hundreds of state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jets to Ankara and suspending it from the program. The Pentagon says the S-400s pose a direct threat to the F-35s.

Yet at the same time, the State Department’s Syria envoy Jim Jeffrey, who has said it’s “my job” to make Syria “a quagmire for the Russians,” appears to believe that Turkey is serving as something of a counterweight to them in Syria after Turkish forces launched a series of attacks against Moscow’s Syrian regime allies in Idlib in March, killing hundreds of Syrian government forces and their Iranian-backed Shiite proxies. They were retaliating against an airstrike likely carried out by Russia that killed 33 Turkish forces.

Jeffrey told a panel at the Hudson Institute on May 15, “I think that Turkey can be of great benefit to us in Syria. I think the latest round of fighting in Idlib, where the Turks killed a large number — I don’t know the exact number — of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives, shows that Turkey can be a part of or at least be comfortable with a US counter-Iran strategy and counter-Russia strategy in the Middle East in general and particularly in Syria.”

The facts suggest otherwise. Erdogan flew to Moscow soon after, where he agreed to a cease-fire in Idlib largely on President Vladimir Putin’s terms. Yet Ankara appears happy to encourage the belief that it can play with Washington against Moscow, and in doing so, help level the field with Moscow when seeking accommodation with it in Syria and now Libya.

It was in this vein that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called on the United States today to "play a more active role in Libya, both for achieving a cease-fire and in the political process."

“The trick is that relations between Turkey and the United States and between Turkey and the European Union are unlikely to result in anything clean,” said Eissenstat. “The institutional framework of NATO assumes that we all are in fact on the same team. Erdogan has so far been able to manage that ambiguity very well and has maximized his independence.” Eissenstat cautioned, however, “But as the advertisements always say, ‘past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future gains,’ and the S-400s will really test Erdogan’s strategy.”

Update: June 11, 2020. This article has been updated to include a statement made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

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