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Why the United States just imposed sanctions on Turkey

By threatening sanctions, the Trump administration might only push Turkey closer to Russia.

President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend the opening ceremony at the 2018 NATO Summit at NATO headquarters on July 11, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. CREDIT: Sean Gallup/Getty Images.
President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend the opening ceremony at the 2018 NATO Summit at NATO headquarters on July 11, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. CREDIT: Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

When President Donald Trump last week threatened to slap sanctions on Turkey over the imprisonment of an American pastor there, the country’s response was to basically shrug and to say that the United States should “reconsider its approach.”

That tone changed on Tuesday, when Turkey said it would retaliate in kind if the Trump administration tried to impose sanctions (which it did, by Wednesday afternoon) over the refusal of the Turkish government to free Pastor Andrew Brunson, whose predicament (he’s accused of being a spy and participating in the Turkish coup attempt of 2016) has been the subject of several Trump tweets in recent months.

“This is unprecedented in U.S.-Turkey relations,” said Aaron Stein, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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“One of the things that has led to this decline is that this administration is bonkers,” he told ThinkProgress, adding that the issue has become personalized, he said, adding that the two sides are ultimately “at an impasse” now.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who might not have been looped into last week’s threat of sanctions) had a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the details of which have not yet been released.

Stein said Brunson, along with others, including several foreign nationals who work for the U.S. State Department in Turkey, are being held hostage by Turkey as it tries to force concessions from the United States.

What the Turks are asking for (at least, publicly) is the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gülen — who President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused of orchestrating the 2016 coup against him. So badly does Erdogan want Gülen that several Turkish officials offered to pay Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former National Security Advisor, to kidnap him and hand him over to Turkish authorities.

The other person Erdogan is interested in is Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who was found guilty of helping Turkey violate sanctions agains Iran. Turkey wants him to be transferred back home, serving the remainder of his 32-month sentence there.

Now, the case involving Atilla is an odd one.

As ThinkProgress reported in December, his co-defendant — at least, before he turned witness for the prosecution — was Reza Zarrab, who Erdogan also wanted released (possibly also with the help of Flynn) because the Turkish police investigation that ultimately led to the arrest of Zarrab and Atilla involved recording that implicated people close to Erdogan.

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The Turkish president instigated a major purge in 2014, which brought that corruption investigation to a screeching halt.

Putting aside the country’s domestic issues (Erdogan’s endless crackdowns on opponents, journalists, civil servants, academics, and human rights advocates) things have been going in the wrong direction in U.S. – Turkey relations for a while now.

Erdogan’s security guards openly assaulted peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C. last year. He complicated the U.S. mission in Syria by bombing and invading villages of U.S. Kurdish allies within Syria (Turkey views Kurds as a terrorist threat).

He also signed an agreement with Russia that allows it to build a pipeline through Turkey, giving the federation access to natural gas markets in Eastern Europe (and competing directly with U.S. liquid natural gas).

U.S.-Turkey relations ‘already past the Rubicon’

The relations between the United States and Turkey are “terrible” said Stein, adding that President Trump’s response to this has been “to negotiate diplomatic policy like a small-time real estate deal in Manhattan… to be buddy-buddy with Erdogan, to try and smooth over serious geopolitical disagreements with a fist-bump.”

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There are radical divergences in threat perceptions: Turkey is less concerned about the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda, and far more concerned about the Kurds. For the United States, the exact opposite holds true.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (greets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 26, 2018. CREDIT:  Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (greets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 26, 2018. CREDIT: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images.

While the Turks say they will retaliate with sanctions, Stein explains that there’s basically no way Turkey can do serious damage to the U.S. banking industry, whereas “aggressive U.S. sanctions will collapse the Turkish banking industry, point-blank.”

Turkey’s economy has been struggling, which is one reason why Erdogan pushed the presidential and parliamentary elections from 2019 to June, for fear that greater fiscal uncertainty might post a serious threat to his chances of reelection.

And although Turkey is an important NATO ally (well, as much as President Trump can care about NATO right now, which is to say, not much), the United States runs much of its counter-ISIS operations out of Jordan now. It does have the second-largest army in NATO, personnel-wise

What Turkey can do, said Stein, is to “decouple” and “pivot towards Russia.”

When asked if perhaps the president’s advisors could reign him in and perhaps caution him against a heated escalation with Turkey, Stein did not seem inclined to hold his breath.

“The tradition guardrails against something like this aren’t there any longer…we’re already past the Rubicon on this. More coercive action was needed on this issue, but there’s a difference between quiet diplomacy and quiet coercion versus [Vice President] Mike Pence staring into a camera and warning that sanctions are coming followed by a presidential tweet,” he said.


UPDATE: This story was changed to reflect the passing of U.S. sanctions against two Turkish officials.