Trump’s Weak Sanctions May Only Help Erdogan

Despite his vow to “destroy” Turkey’s economy, the U.S. president could help its leader escape the wrath of Congress.

President Donald Trump speaks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend the opening ceremony at the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels on July 11, 2018. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to destroy Turkey’s economy if its troops misbehaved after he greenlighted the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Instead, even in the face of reports of Turkish atrocities and other offenses, Trump slapped Turkey’s wrist on Monday, announcing that he would levy sanctions against a trio of government ministers and the country’s steel industry.

It’s a far cry from the economic havoc he promised—and in any event comes as tens of thousands of Kurds are fleeing, Islamic State jails are emptying, and U.S. credibility is in tatters.

The sanctions announced Monday target three Turkish officials: the ministers of defense, energy, and interior. The Treasury Department also leveled sanctions against Turkey’s Ministry of Defense and its Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources. Trump also said he would pull out of talks to reach a trade agreement with Turkey and would put tariffs on Turkish steel back where they were this spring.

But critics say those measures are just as likely to strengthen Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they are to hurt him. The Turkish economy is currently undergoing a historic downturn, and Trump’s sanctions give Erdogan a perfect boogeyman on which to blame his troubles. Trump’s milquetoast measure may be an effort to forestall tougher sanctions legislation under consideration in Congress.

“In a perverse manner, this actually helps Erdogan,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkey’s parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.

Trump said in his statement Monday that Erdogan’s move into northern Syria is “precipitating a humanitarian crisis and setting conditions for possible war crimes” and that Turkey must take steps to ensure that the Islamic State does not make a comeback in Syria, or “I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy.” But there was nothing in his statement that suggested any such retaliation.

Speaking to reporters at the White House on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence said Trump had spoken to Erdogan and asked that a cease-fire be imposed on northern Syria. Pence said he and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien planned to travel to Turkey in an attempt to help broker the cease-fire.

Turkish officials had warned for years that they planned to move against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, whom they view as linked to a domestic terrorist group. Analysts argue that it is highly unlikely that U.S. sanctions will deter Turkey from carrying out a military operation that Erdogan considers strategic.

“Things have changed since last Monday, and this is well beyond the power of sanctions to solve at this point,” said Brian O’Toole, a former sanctions official at the U.S. Treasury now at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

“It is too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but they can’t admit the original mistake” of abandoning U.S. counterterrorism partners who have suffered the fatal consequences of U.S. betrayal once before, O’Toole said. “So they reach for sanctions.”

Five days into the assault, Turkish troops have reclaimed border towns in Syrian territory formerly controlled by Kurdish guerrilla fighters, killed scores of troops loyal to the Syrian Democratic Forces, and released Islamic State supporters and family members held by Kurdish forces.

U.S. military officials have reacted with horror to Trump’s decision to abandon their Kurdish allies in northern Syria, who saw more than 10,000 of their troops die in the fight against the Islamic State. Pentagon officials have asked that the financial assets of Erdogan’s top cabinet officials, including his foreign minister, be frozen and that the United States institute a ban on sales of military equipment to Turkey, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Trump’s statement on Monday made no mention of ending such sales.

In announcing Monday that he planned to impose sanctions on Turkey, Trump may have been penned in by lawmakers in Congress, who were planning to introduce legislation this week targeting the Turkish government with financial penalties. Monday’s move appears to be an attempt to head off a confrontation with members of his own party, including Trump’s most vocal defender in the Senate, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of many who are apoplectic over the president’s abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies.

With a House impeachment inquiry proceeding rapidly, Trump needs to appease Republican senators, such as Graham, who have defended him. Graham, along with Democratic Sen. Chris van Hollen, said last week that they planned to introduce sanctions legislation targeting Turkey. Graham over the weekend touted Trump’s embrace of sanctions as a “game changer.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said Monday that “we must have a stronger sanctions package than what the White House is suggesting.”

The Trump administration clearly could inflict plenty of economic pain on Turkey, a NATO ally, by limiting its ability to access the international financial system, limiting arms sales, and going after sensitive sectors such as energy. The Turkish currency is already getting thumped—among the worst-performing currencies this month—and U.S. sanctions could certainly intensify that pain.

The problem is that while sanctions have become the go-to tool for recent U.S. administrations, and especially this one, economic sanctions won’t reverse the Turkish invasion, or put Islamic State terrorists back in prison, or restore U.S. credibility with an ally that has been forced to join hands with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Russia to stave off genocide.

But unlike Trump’s previous experience with sanctions on Turkey—when targeted sanctions on Turkish ministers helped secure the release of an imprisoned U.S. pastor—this time, the United States is trying to use economic leverage to change one of Erdogan’s core convictions.

“The question is: What are sanctions going to do, except satisfy some blood lust? Crippling somebody’s economy is not the smartest way to go,” O’Toole said.

Staff writer Lara Seligman contributed to this article.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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