While Trump claims 'no deal' over Brunson, Erdogan escalates threats in Northeast Syria

by Meghan Bodette    


American Evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, imprisoned in Turkey for over two years on terror charges, returned to the United States early Saturday morning. He subsequently met with US President Donald Trump in the White House, where Brunson and his family thanked Trump and members of Congress who he claimed "stood with us, who prayed for us, [and] who fought for us." 

The Second High Court in Izmir sentenced Brunson, who had previously been on house arrest, to three years, one month, and fifteen days in prison on Friday. The judge counted the sentence against time served and lifted all travel restrictions on Brunson, allowing him to return to the United States. Key witnesses in the trial recanted earlier statements linking Brunson to Gulenists and PKK members— the groups that he was charged with supporting. 

Both Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rushed to deny any involvement in the verdict. 

"There was NO DEAL made with Turkey for the release and return of Pastor Andrew Brunson. I don’t make deals for hostages," Trump wrote in a message posted to Twitter early Saturday morning. 

The office of the Turkish Presidency claimed that the case was proof of judicial independence in Turkey. According to Turkish pro-government news outlet Daily Sabah, Erdogan claimed that "Since Turkey is a state of law, I am not in a position to interfere with the judiciary. Whatever the judiciary decides, I have to comply with that decision." 

Despite this, NBC News reported two days before the hearing that a deal had been negotiated weeks before, claiming that National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had advanced an agreement in meetings that took place while Turkish officials were in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly. 

Brunson's fate had been a focal point of US policy towards Turkey for the past several months. In August, Trump claimed that he would impose "large sanctions" on Turkey if he was not freed, and his continued detention was cited in the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act as a reason to halt the transfer of F-35 jets. US officials repeatedly brought up the matter in discussions with their Turkish counterparts. 

Hours after Brunson's verdict was handed down, YPG sources claimed that Turkish forces shelled the Syrian border near Kobani, attacking the towns of Ashma, Bebana, Ziarat, and others between Kobani and Serekaniye and injuring one civilian. The governor of Turkey's Gaziantep Province, which borders SDF-held Manbij, declared increased security along the border— just one day after Erdogan threatened the SDF there, saying that "They are now digging trenches in Manbij. What does this mean? It means ‘we’ve prepared the graves, come and bury us'...We will do what is necessary."

The US has repeatedly stressed that its forces in the area will defend themselves if Manbij is attacked. Earlier this year, US and Turkish officials reached an agreement for joint patrols outside of the city— but the implementation of that agreement has been delayed, with Erdogan claiming that it "is not dead," but will not go into effect now.

Manbij remains a clear site of contention between the US and Turkey even after Brunson's release, and it is unlikely that threats against it or other parts of Northeast Syria where there is a Coalition presence were related directly to the terms of any Brunson deal. Friday's actions in Syria were more likely meant to draw the Turkish public's attention from Brunson's release and warn the US that relations were not fully repaired— even as Trump said, in the same Twitter post where he denied the deal, that Brunson's release could lead to "good, perhaps great, relations between the United States [and] Turkey."