A deluge of sanctions may be imposed on Turkey as a US delegation including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sets off for Ankara to negotiate a cease-fire in Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top officials.
Last week, US President Donald Trump gave the green light for a Turkish military operation in northeast Syria, where Ankara seeks to create a buffer zone between its border and US-backed Kurdish militants it views as security threat. The ongoing fighting has brought international condemnation as well as resistance within Washington, and now the Trump administration appears to be reversing course by threatening to impose severe sanctions if Turkey does not pull back its troops.
Following initial approval of the incursion, Trump introduced a sanctions package Monday targeting Turkish steel exports, trade talks and a number of Ankara officials. Yet built-up anger in Washington over an array of Turkish policies and actions in recent years appears to be driving a push for more severe reprisals on Ankara.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham stated he would introduce a bill Thursday with bipartisan support that could unroll the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanction Act (CAATSA), which has so far been deferred following Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system this summer, and would potentially hinder Turkey’s defense and energy sectors. On Wednesday, members of the US House of Representatives also said they would seek to impose sanctions through a separate piece of legislation.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department charged Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank on Tuesday with facilitating a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran in a move that could impose crippling measures on the Turkish banking sector and further damage the nation’s already weakened economy.
Prior to Turkey’s incursion into northeast Syria, both the CAATSA and the HalkBank sanctions had been delayed in an apparent effort to preserve US-Turkish relations. As the ongoing fighting displaces more than 160,000 civilians and disrupts unfinished operations against Islamic State militants in the region, the military operation appears to have “opened the flood gates” for long held resentment among Washington officials, said Howard Eissenstat, a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based think tank.
“The Trump administration was still doing its best to salvage the relationship,” Eissenstat, who is also an associate professor at St. Lawrence University, told Al-Monitor. “[The White House] was going to slow walk this and do the minimal amount of damage that we can afford to prevent a congressional response.”
While Turkey remains a key NATO ally, the call for sanctions on the nation have grown following the detention of American citizens and consular staff on dubious terror-related charges. Turkish officials have also courted increased Russian support in recent years, highlighted by the purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles, which led to Turkey’s removal from the NATO F35 fighter jet program over security concerns.
Ankara has also been deeply disturbed by US support for the Kurdish militias in Syria with links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is recognized as terrorist organization in Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Failure to satisfy Ankara’s extradition requests of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania suspected of having orchestrated a 2016 coup attempt, has also aggravated US-Turkey relations.
Erdogan has so far dismissed the threat of sanctions, reiterating military operations in Syria would continue until the objective of establishing a safe zone along the Turkish border is achieved.
“They say ‘declare a cease-fire.’ We will never declare a cease-fire,” Erdogan told reporters on a flight from Baku to Turkey Tuesday evening. “They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”
Taking into account the current political discord, some analysts say additional measures and tariffs on Turkish exports would not stop the military offensive in Syria.
“It is very unlikely that Turkey will reverse course in Syria,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, told Al-Monitor. “What Turkey is doing is a fundamental part of Turkish security policy. … In order to relieve pressure on itself, Turkey may actually turn towards the Syrian regime.”
Erdogan has said he could tolerate the presence of Russian and Syrian regime forces in Manbij and other areas along the Turkish border. Unluhisarcikli said Ankara’s main concern was removing PKK-linked Kurdish militants with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from northeast Syria.
“President Erdogan has hinted that so long as the YPG is de-territorialized in Syria, it’s not a big problem if [the Syrian regime] controls territories that used to be controlled by YPG, and this may be the beginning of a modus vivendi with Syria,” Unluhisarcikli told Al-Monitor.
For the time being, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien is scheduled to meet with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu Wednesday evening and Pence and Pompeo are expecting to meet with Erdogan on Thursday. Though the US delegation will attempt to sway Turkish officials into pulling back their troops, Eissenstat questioned the leverage American negotiators will have following the mixed messages coming from Washington in recent weeks.
“The United States with regard to Turkey, we’re the reverse of Machiavelli, we’re neither feared nor loved,” Eissenstat told Al-Monitor. “It’s going to be a long haul.”