As options narrow on Syria, Trump prepares to drop sanctions hammer on Turkey

Published October 14, 2019
An old man asks for help from a building in Akcakale, a town near the Turkish border with Syria on October 13, 2019, after it was hit by a rocket reported to be fired from within Syria. — AFP
An old man asks for help from a building in Akcakale, a town near the Turkish border with Syria on October 13, 2019, after it was hit by a rocket reported to be fired from within Syria. — AFP

President Donald Trump's administration is set to impose economic sanctions on Ankara, potentially as early as this week, for its incursion into northern Syria, one of the few levers the United States still has over Nato-ally Turkey.

Using the US military to stop the Turkish offensive on US-allied Kurdish fighters was never an option, defence officials have said, and Trump asked the Pentagon on Sunday to begin a "deliberate" withdrawal of all troops from northern Syria.

After Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday that Trump had authorised "very powerful" new sanctions targeting Turkey, the administration appeared ready to start making good on Trump's threat to obliterate Turkey's economy.

On Sunday, Trump said he was listening to Congress, where Republicans and Democrats are pushing aggressively for sanctions action.

"Dealing with @LindseyGrahamSC and many members of Congress, including Democrats, about imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey," Trump said on Twitter, referring to the loyal Trump ally and US senator who lambasted the president last week.

"Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought. There is great consensus on this. Turkey has asked that it not be done. Stay tuned!" he added.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that sanctions were "being worked out at all levels of the government for rollout".

Trump is struggling to quell harsh criticism, including from some of his staunchest Republican backers, that he gave Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a green light to attack the Kurds last Sunday when he decided to pull a small number of US troops out of the border area.

Turkey's offensive aims to neutralise the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and seen by Ankara as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. But the SDF has also been Washington's key ally in fighting that has dismantled the militant Islamic State (IS) group's "caliphate" in Syria.

Trump's decision, rooted in his long-stated aim to get the US out of "endless wars", has prompted bipartisan concerns that it opens the door to the revival of IS.

While sanctions appear to be the strongest tool of deterrence, the US and its European allies could also ponder arms sales bans and the threat of war crimes prosecutions.

"Good decision by President @realDonaldTrump to work with Congress to impose crippling sanctions against Turkeys outrageous aggression/war crimes in Syria," Graham tweeted.

'Possible sanctions'

It is unclear what sanctions are in the order drafted last week, which Mnuchin said was ready for activation at any moment, and whether they would be as severe as what lawmakers are proposing.

Representatives Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and Mike McCaul, the committee's senior Republican, introduced a bill last Friday that would sanction Turkish officials involved in the Syria operation and banks involved with Turkey's defence sector until Turkey ends military operations in Syria.

It also would stop arms from going to Turkish forces in Syria, and require the administration to impose existing sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of a Russian S-400 missile-defence system.

The US could look at targeting arm sales to Turkey, something a number of European countries have already done. France said on Saturday that it had suspended all weapon sales to Turkey and warned Ankara that its offensive in northern Syria threatened European security.

The White House could also look at increasing pressure on Turkey over reports of human rights abuses during the offensive, with a threat of war crimes prosecutions.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry said late on Friday that Turkey would retaliate against any steps aimed at countering its efforts to fight terrorism, in response to the announcement of possible US sanctions against Turkey.

France calls for arms embargo

Meanwhile, France called upon the European Union foreign ministers to call for an arms embargo on Turkey and to once again condemn Ankara's offensive on Syria.

The EU foreign ministers must also request that the US hold a meeting of the coalition against IS, France's foreign minister said on Monday.

The EU, which Turkey still aspires to join, had already condemned the Turkish air and artillery strikes on Kurdish militia in northeast Syria but has been infuriated by President Tayyip Erdogan's threats to send refugees to Europe.

"This offensive is going to cause serious humanitarian devastation," Jean-Yves Le Drian said as he arrived for a meeting with his EU counterparts in Luxembourg.

"France expects from this meeting [...] a specific demand to end the offensive [...] a firm position on arms exports to Turkey and [...] that the United States holds a meeting of the international coalition [against IS],” he told reporters.

His comments came hours before the French football team were due to host Turkey for a Euro 2020 qualifying match. There have been calls in France to cancel the match.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the Turkish offensive, which had resulted in an alliance of the Kurds and Syria's Bashir al-Assad, had turned the things on their head and made matters more difficult.

"We are also fearing, and we are seeing it already, that this is leading to a strengthening of IS, which we absolutely must prevent," Maas told reporters.

Germany and France have already suspended arms exports to Turkey and Maas said the EU needed to united in their calls to Ankara.

The EU exported some 45 million euros ($50 million) in arms and ammunition to Turkey last year, according to the EU's statistics office Eurostat, with Italy, Spain, Britain and Germany the main exporters. Data for military aircraft was not immediately available.

"We do not wish to support this war and do not want to make arms available," Maas said.

"But it is important to stay in dialogue with Turkey in order to influence it, but if that does not succeed then we have to have further measures in reserve," he continued.

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said he favoured ending arms sales to Turkey. Asked if was angry with US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, which coincided with the Turkish offensive, Borrell said.

“I am not angry. I'm just taking a rational position, in a very difficult situation in which every EU country will be, I hope, against Turkish actions.” ($1 = 0.9077 euros)



Environment Day
05 Jun, 2023

Environment Day

OUR world is not reusable nor can it be made perishable. As the plastic tide spins out of control, World Environment...
Spending for votes
05 Jun, 2023

Spending for votes

THE cash-strapped government’s plans to boost its annual development spending by as much as 31pc in the next...
On schadenfreude
Updated 05 Jun, 2023

On schadenfreude

Was it a ‘crime’ that he spoke out against the abuses being suffered by PTI workers at the hands of the state?
Surveillance state
Updated 04 Jun, 2023

Surveillance state

IN the midst of the madness, finally some sanity. Questions critical to the right to privacy of citizens bombarded ...
Transport crisis
04 Jun, 2023

Transport crisis

LIKE many other public-sector projects, governments past and present have promised numerous times to ‘revive’ ...
The Buzdar mystery
04 Jun, 2023

The Buzdar mystery

THE departure of former Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar from politics is not really surprising as the PTI is...