Despite Trump’s murky policy, US may still impose sanctions on Turkey

Polarisation in the Congress is reflected through the daily zigzagging of members who are torn between principled action and self-interest-based tactics.
Saturday 26/10/2019
Questions remain. US Representative for New Jersey Albio Sires holds a picture of Presidents Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he asks a question to US State Department Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the decision to remove US forces from Syria, in Washington, October 23.(Reuters)
Questions remain. US Representative for New Jersey Albio Sires holds a picture of Presidents Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he asks a question to US State Department Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey durin

The Turkish incursion into north-eastern Syria and the agreement between Russian President Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are serious elements of concern that are rattling Washington.

Key sources in the US Congress and Turkey analysts said the ground under US President Donald Trump and Erdogan remained volatile.

For now, Congress, in which there is no single representative with the slightest sympathy for Erdogan, is cast into limbo regarding sanctions on Turkey because the intricate political developments pointing to Trump’s impeachment jeopardise their approval.

I landed in Washington in mid-October and immediately noticed that the media were seeking answers as to why Trump was so consistently in Erdogan’s orbit. What motive led the American president to give in to Erdogan’s demands?

The answers are not there yet but if they surface in the manner of concrete revelations of alleged murky business deals, there is little doubt that they could make their way into the impeachment process.

The more one talks with experienced Turkey observers, the more apparent confusion and despair among them becomes. It has to do with several factors: Key US institutions have fallen into a remarkable passivity and silence. Regular briefings at the US State Department more or less ceased, leaving journalists with guessing games.

Polarisation in the Congress is reflected through the daily zigzagging of members who are torn between principled action and self-interest-based tactics.

The rapid shifts in the tone of Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, a key actor in the process of punishing Erdogan for the incursion, is a clear example of the hesitation between glory-aimed loyalty to Trump or whether to challenge him to employ harsher sanctions.

Another element is the string of sharply contradictory Twitter messages that Trump fires off daily. One source said: “Anything is possible at any moment.  Another noted: “It’s all a Kabuki dance.”

Will there be sanctions? If so, to what extent? Is the announced visit of Erdogan to the White House to be taken for granted? What about the invitation of General Mazloum Kobani, the Kurdish commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces fighters, to Washington?

Not even the most seasoned Turkey and White House experts can tell for sure. While some suggest that the Graham-Van Hollen bill on Turkish sanctions lost momentum, one source in Congress pointed to another bill (of four) — prepared by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch and ranking Democrat Bob Menendez — as the measure that “may” eventually pass.

Although the bill includes parts that target Halkbank (now involved in a federal court case on allegedly bypassing Iran embargo with claims of massive money laundering) and directs Trump to oppose loans to Turkey from international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, it will take a long time to process.

By that time, Erdogan most likely will have completed his visit to Washington and, as sources predict, both presidents will jump into a new phase to stand their opponents off. There are also observers who, based on these predictions, conclude that sanctions will soon be off the table. In this context, backed by the notion of how slippery politics have taken siege of Washington, that observation is the one that makes the most sense.

What will Erdogan ask of Trump next? That cynical question preoccupies many. Observers agree on one issue: Erdogan may resolutely demand of his counterpart that the Halkbank case be shelved. He may insist on financial support for his troubled economy and, in return, he may promise to withdraw his forces from Syria and release some US Embassy employees detained in Turkish prisons.

Would there be any game changer that would mar the remarkable cooperation between the two presidents and prevent it from going deeper? The only factor, observers agree, would be an exposure of some murky affair, if any, that glues them togethe.

In this case, it would be especially Trump who would be forced into a corner and, as a result, Congress would see its realpolitik-based barriers fall and focus on targeted sanctions on his Turkish counterpart.

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