US-Turkey relations may be left beyond repair

“The new executive order is potentially very damaging to Turkey but you have to believe Trump will actually use it beyond some symbolic measures," said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Saturday 19/10/2019
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrives to announce the threat of sanctions on Turkey in the Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, October 11. (AP)
Too little, too late. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrives to announce the threat of sanctions on Turkey in the Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, October 11. (AP)

WASHINGTON - Following US President Donald Trump’s announcement about withdrawing American troops from Syria, after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose forces then attacked Kurds in northern Syria, outrage, internationally and within his own party, created a divide between Washington and Ankara that may be beyond repair, analysts said.

Trump seems to have had second thoughts regarding the move, even though his advisers were probably aware that withdrawing US troops from north-eastern Syria would leave the Kurds, long-time US allies whom Trump describes as “no angels,” unprotected from Turkish forces.

In a statement, Trump said he would “totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey” if the country acted in a manner he deemed inappropriate. Trump, through an October 14 executive order, announced sanctions on three Turkish government ministers and the Turkish steel industry.

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger at the Washington Post, said the sanctions confirm Trump was wrong to withdraw. “The necessity of imposing sanctions pretty much confirms Trump’s decision was a blunder,” Rubin said.

Members of the US Congress were quick to state their opposition to the withdrawal decision. A bill was introduced by US Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican generally in strong support of Trump, to compel Turkey to end air strikes and invasion under the threat of sanctions on high-level officials, including Erdogan, as well as Turkey’s military and energy sector. A similar measure was introduced in the US House of Representatives.

With Turkey’s economy struggling, partly because of 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country, the sanctions might be enough to pressure Erdogan into acceding to the US demands. Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the sanctions could be successful in damaging the Turkish economy but Congress needs to act to truly affect Turkey.

“The new executive order is potentially very damaging to Turkey but you have to believe Trump will actually use it beyond some symbolic measures. Congress should pass mandatory statutory sanctions to be automatically implemented unless Erdogan ends invasion,” Dubowitz said.

On October 16, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the Turkish parliament that Ankara would retaliate against any US sanctions and that he expected the United States to stop its hard-line approach against Turkey.

His instincts may be correct. After threatening Turkey with economic penalties, Trump pivoted again and said the Turkish invasion is “not our problem.”

Erdogan said he is working to establish a safe zone in northern Syria to resettle millions of refugees who fled to Turkey during the Syrian war. Erdogan claimed, in a Wall Street Journal article, that Turkey was forced to act in Syria because the international community’s response continues to fall short. Erdogan is wary of both the Kurdish soldiers and Islamic State (ISIS) members active in the region.

Turkey claims the Kurds are aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish independence group that both Turkey and the United States have designated a terrorist organisation. Erdogan said the Turkish goal in the invasion is to “fight against… the PKK, along with its Syrian affiliates and Islamic State.”

Erdogan stated he was not interested in meeting with US Vice-President Mike Pence, who travelled to Ankara to attempt to secure a ceasefire. However, they did meet and a deal was struck for temporary halt of the fighting.

Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, said Erdogan’s disinterest in a meeting indicated a breakdown in bilateral relations. He said relations between Turkey and the United States “are at the lowest point than I can ever remember. It’s just another example of how we haven’t been practising diplomacy in the Trump years.”

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