As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the White House today over howls of protest from Congress, aides and experts are worried that President Donald Trump will opt not to punish the NATO ally for diverging from to American interests to launch an incursion into northern Syria and taking delivery of a Russian air defense system.
A congressional committee aide who spoke with Al-Monitor said Congress increasingly expects that Trump will not levy automatic US sanctions on Turkey designed to punish major buyers of Russian weapons systems; Turkey bought the $2.5 billion S-400 air defense system, despite pushback from the State Department and Defense Department.
The staffer said the Pentagon is extremely worried that Turkey is on a path to steadily disengage from the United States as it publicly pursues other Russian weapons systems, and American credibility could wane if the Trump administration does not follow through on sanctions threats.
Last month, Turkish officials said Ankara was in an “advanced stage” of talks to acquire up to 50 Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, a move that could further disentangle Turkey from NATO’s industrial base. Turkey is also hoping to purchase a second tranche of S-400 batteries, which boast powerful radar capabilities that prompted the United States to kick Turkey out of the F-35 program.
Congress overwhelmingly passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in 2017 to target Russia’s defense industry, which represents an important source of export revenue.
At a press conference with Erdogan at the White House today, Trump said the S-400 purchase “creates some very serious challenges” for the United States and said he had directed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “resolve the situation.” But despite the insistence of top officials that the US administration will follow the law when it comes to the sanctions, the commander in chief has consistently balked at the possibility of punishing Turkey for the sale, suggesting that Erdogan was not “treated fairly” by his predecessor.
In June, before the first delivery of S-400 batteries, Trump insisted that the Barack Obama administration had refused to sell Patriot missile batteries to Turkey.
Erdogan acknowledged Trump’s June statement at today's press conference, thanking the US president for recognizing an "injustice imposed on Turkey," and floated the possibility of buying the US system "under suitable circumstances," though the Turkish president did not indicate he would give up the S-400. Former US officials say the potential sale stagnated when Turkey demanded onerous technology transfer conditions.
Trump’s reticence to impose sanctions on Turkey has signaled to Erdogan that he can rely on the US president to forestall pressure from Congress, experts say.
“Erdogan continues to believe that his relationship with Trump will shield him from sanctions,” said Nicholas Danforth, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund. “So far Trump's refusal to follow through on CAATSA sanctions has validated that belief.”
But though lawmakers have pushed back against a reluctant Trump, there is no clear consensus in Congress over how much the United States should punish its NATO ally over the S-400 purchase. Erdogan’s visit to the White House included a gathering with a small group of Republican senators. Some Democrats had called on Trump to cancel his White House meeting with Erdogan.
In the only case where the Trump administration has laid down CAATSA sanctions, it slapped China’s equipment development department and its director with five sanctions in September 2018, prohibiting transactions in the US financial system and denying export licenses over Beijing’s purchase of the S-400 and the Su-35.
The challenge for the administration in sanctioning Turkey is that "you have to be able to turn [sanctions] up and down," a Senate aide told Al-Monitor. "It's foolish to think that they'll go full bore."
For instance, heavy Russian sanctions against Turkey after the 2014 shootdown of a Sukhoi jet in Syria caused serious economic pressure on Ankara. The more the US sanctions countries and denies them weapons sales, the aides said, the more it could force allies to go elsewhere for their security. The United States withdrew its offer to sell Patriots to Turkey over the summer, as previously reported by Al-Monitor.
That would present a particularly acute challenge for the Pentagon, the committee staffer said, adding that the United States depends upon Turkey for key parts of the supply chain for US defense systems, which include the Chinook heavy lift and Black Hawk utility helicopter, and the F-16 fighter jet, as well as naval vessels.
The Defense Department says it is tracking to unwind Turkey’s role in the F-35 consortium, for which it produced 900 parts, including major portions of the aircraft’s landing gear and fuselage, by March of next year.
Testifying in Congress today, F-35 program executive officer Lt. Gen. Eric Fick said Turkey still builds 11 components on the fighter jet’s airframe that have not been taken by another supplier, but top Pentagon officials insist that Turkey’s expulsion from the program hasn’t delayed production.
But the Trump administration has only imposed limited penalties on Turkey, slapping two top Turkish officials with sanctions over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson in August 2018 while simultaneously imposing tariffs on Turkish products.
After Turkey's ongoing incursion into Syria prompted the House of Representatives to pass sweeping sanctions legislation last month that includes a condemnation of the World War I-era Armenian genocide and a ban on arms sales, Senate leaders have called for caution in punishing Turkey.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and some Democrats fear Erdogan may try to leverage American sanctions for domestic political gain, driving another wedge in the relationship between NATO allies.
“I think we have to recognize that misplaced sanctions could strengthen Erdogan. He increasingly uses Anti-Americanism as a tool to rally his political base, and these sanctions could play right into his hands,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the powerful foreign relations panel, told Al-Monitor.
Murphy said he would favor applying sanctions “if there is evidence of war crimes” or if Turkey tries “forcibly resettle individuals who don’t originate from that section of Syria.” Erdogan has threatened to resettle 1 million to 2 million refugees from the eight-year conflict in northern Syria.
“I would much rather use our sanctions to effect their behavior going forward rather than to create a set of sanctions that will become permanent, effectively making the decision by accident of whether we’re going to be in a long-term security relationship with Turkey,” Murphy said.
Trump lifted limited sanctions against Turkey at the end of a US-brokered temporary cease-fire, which officials said was violated almost from the start, prompting protests from Congress. Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., have proposed a more extensive package of penalties that would crack down on the US assets of Turkish officials, prohibit military sales and aid, and sanction the energy sector.
A US official said Trump’s executive order to sanction Turkey “is still valid and available as needed” but appeared to indicate it would not be the first option to deal with Turkey’s incursion that the United Nations says has killed 92 people and displaced 100,000. “Good diplomats don’t lead with threats,” the official added, saying that Turkey would be deterred by a “subtle mix of incentive and disincentive.”
Former US officials said the Trump administration’s move to go light on sanctions was expected. “Treasury will never empty the kitchen sink of sanctions from the beginning,” said Hagar Hajjar Chemali, a former Treasury official during the Obama administration now with the Atlantic Council. “The hope is that the behavior is changed. They try to be very carefully calibrated.”
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