As Trump threatens to destroy Turkey's economy and Kurds die, many wonder if penalties will have teeth
Posted October 14, 2019 8:18 p.m. EDT
CNN — President Donald Trump said Monday that he is prepared to "swiftly destroy" Turkey's economy with sanctions if it continues its attack against US-allied Kurds in northeastern Syria -- provoking a "let's see" response from some analysts and Turkey experts.
"I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey's economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path," Trump said in his statement, shortly before signing an executive order to impose penalties. If Turkey doesn't stop its attack immediately, more sanctions will be coming, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in his own statement.
The fiery rhetoric "probably helps" President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. But he and others note that so far, Trump has been seemingly reluctant to sanction Turkey for a range of actions that run counter to US national security interests -- and even to levy sanctions legally required by Congress.
In Monday's statement, the President said he would impose sanctions against current and former Turkish officials involved in the Syrian operation, raise steel tariffs back to the 50% levels he'd imposed earlier this year and "immediately" stop trade negotiations with Ankara.
But US government figures show that Turkish steel imports have fallen 76% since 2018 -- there's relatively little steel left to sanction.
The last time the Trump administration sanctioned Turkish officials, in August 2018, the people in question had little to no exposure to the US financial system, experts said.
And with US-Turkey relations at the worst point in decades, the idea that trade talks would be easy to conduct is highly unlikely.
The sanctions are part of the administration's attempt to respond to a vociferous backlash against Trump's decision to pull US troops out of northeastern Syria. The pullback is widely seen as giving Erdogan room to act on his long-held goal of attacking the Kurds who fought for and with the US against ISIS.
Republicans, Democrats and former officials who have served administrations of both parties say the Trump move hands a victory to Syria, Russia and Iran, betrays the Kurds, will reverse gains against ISIS and will undermine US credibility and trustworthiness in a way that will make it harder to form future alliances.
Tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians have been displaced as reports of civilian deaths rise.
Lawmakers signaled Monday that regardless of whether the President's sanctions have teeth, they will be taking steps of their own.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was with the President when he signed the executive order, said in a statement that he'd been present for Trump's calls about Turkey. "The President's team has a plan and I intend to support them as strongly as possible, and to give them reasonable time and space to achieve our mutual goals," the South Carolina Republican said.
Graham had told "Fox and Friends" earlier Monday that Congress will impose "crippling sanctions" to supplement whatever action Trump took. The senator said he had "never seen so much bipartisan support" for sanctions and that Congress has "had it with Erdogan."
Not long after Trump's statement, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Turkey's "unacceptable incursion" undermined the fight against ISIS, could engulf the US in a broader conflict and is creating a humanitarian disaster. He urged NATO allies to take action against Ankara.
Arms sales continue
Esper's statement only underscored a gap between the US response and that of other NATO allies and countries.
The President's statement made no mention of halting US arms sales to Turkey -- an option that bipartisan Senate and House lawmakers are now pursuing in legislation.
The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, and the senior Republican on the committee, Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, have a bill that would bar US arms exports to the Turkish Armed Forces conducting operations in Syria, and bar any emergency workarounds that would allow arms exports to go forward.
Meanwhile, France, Germany, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands have announced they will suspend arms sales to Turkey.
"When it comes to Erdogan's transgressions, so far, we really haven't seen any punishment," Erdemir said.
The administration still has not imposed sanctions legally required by Congress for Turkey's purchase of a Russian missile defense system. Afterward, Trump was reportedly reluctant to kick Turkey out of the program to buy the US-made F-35 fighter jet, seeing it as a revenue generator.
His administration has done little about Erdogan providing a lifeline to Venezuela -- helping it move gold and sending supplies to help support the government elites -- even as the US tries to squeeze the regime of Nicolas Maduro.
Likewise, the Trump administration has said little as Ankara continues to say it will not abide US sanctions against Iran. The White House still has not yet imposed a fine against a Turkish bank called Halkbank, despite its participating in the biggest Iran sanctions-evading scheme uncovered.
News recently surfaced that the President's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani lobbied then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to release a jailed Turkish gold trader who federal officials say was a central figure in the scheme to help Iran evade sanctions.
"It's mind-boggling, because it's not just one mistake, it's a pattern," Erdemir said. "It's really quite a mystery."
Giving Erdogan a way out
Steel tariffs, slapped on Turkey along with other countries, and the decision to revoke Turkey's preferential trade status in May were seen by trade analysts more as opening moves for trade talks than a response to Turkey's actions.
Erdemir said Erdogan might even see the trade moves as an acceptable price to pay. "If you had a one on one with Erdogan, he could easily say if that those measures will take care of the reaction of the American public, sure, let's do it," Erdemir said.
Erdemir argues that Trump's trade moves and statements that he and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have made could play into the Turkish leaders' hands. Erdogan and his son-in-law, who is minister of treasury and finance, face growing anger about an economy in tatters and unemployment at an all-time high.
"Now Trump's framing -- I am fully prepared to destroy Turkey's economy -- gives Erdogan a way out. Now he can say, 'It's not my doing, it was the Americans who did this,' " Erdemir said.