Turkey has much to lose in US sanctions row
Turkey-US relations reached a new low with the US administration’s sanctions on its NATO ally. Vice-President Mike Pence had warned of the actions beforehand when, addressing a meeting on religious freedom and in a tone rarely used in diplomatic jargon, he said: “To President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the President of the United States of America: Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences.”
If Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s entourage advised him that this was only a verbal threat that would not be translated into action, their assessment turned out to be wrong. It is also possible that his entourage may have given him the right advice and Erdogan may have dismissed it.
Bankers who met Turkish officials said the sanctions threat was not being taken seriously in Ankara. But, six days after Pence’s warning, the US announced sanctions on two Turkish Cabinet ministers. A statement read: “The Department of Treasury is sanctioning the Turkish Minister of Justice and Minister of Interior, both of whom played a leading role in the arrest and detention of Pastor Brunson. As a result, any property or interest in property of both ministers in US jurisdiction is blocked and US persons are prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.”
With this act, the US has introduced a new practice in international relations. A contentious issue that has to be solved through negotiations between two sovereign states is being solved by the US through a unilateral action.
Turkey rightly announced it would retaliate in kind. The US action is the first such measure directed at the ministers of an allied country. The New York Times characterized the move as “an extraordinary use of financial sanctions against an allied government.”
No doubt it will damage the interests of both sides. The sanctions were imposed in accordance with the Magnitsky Act on human rights abuses on a global scale. So the Turkish ministers are put in the same category as Yahya Jammeh, the Gambia’s corrupt former president; Felix Bautista, a member of the Dominican Republic’s Senate who was involved in a $10 million corruption case; and Nicaraguan National Police Commissioner Francisco Javier Diaz Madriz, who was involved in serious human rights abuses. If this practice becomes widespread, the superpowers will be able to act as gendarmes of the international community, with all the negative consequences that may entail.
Ankara had to retaliate because the nation’s pride was bruised but, if these reciprocal retaliations escalate, Turkey will suffer more than the US. In cognizance of this bitter reality, Turkey started to focus its efforts on defusing the tension, but the unconsidered steps taken earlier provided the US with the upper hand and it is now making the most of it.
The tension is further exacerbated because of domestic politics in both countries. The US is holding Senate elections on Nov. 6 and the evangelical electorate is important for the Trump team. Turkey will hold municipal elections next year and everything that the Turkish government does now will affect the outcome of those elections.
This crisis harbors the risks of escalation, but it could have been turned in a positive direction with a bit more tact and wisdom. This opportunity has now been missed.
The irony is that Brunson’s case has become a more disturbing factor in Turkey-US relations now that he has been moved to house arrest
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after a meeting in Singapore with his Turkish counterpart, said: “I made clear that it is well past time that Pastor Brunson be freed and be permitted to return to the United States. I am hopeful that in the coming days we will see that occur.” This means the US will not settle for anything less than the release of the pastor. If Turkey again misreads this message and does not take a courageous step to change the course of events, the escalation may continue and Turkey’s fragile economy may suffer big losses.
As if this was not enough, there is another wave of measures in the offing, adopted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not to let Turkey benefit from loans from international financial institutions.
The irony is that Brunson’s case has become a more disturbing factor in Turkey-US relations now that he has been moved to house arrest. He was less of a threat while he was kept in jail because the case is now more lively debated.
Turkey will be further pushed toward Russia if this escalation is not stopped, but Turkey-Russia relations are not free from thorny issues. The Russian presidential envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said on Tuesday last week: “We have always maintained that Turkish soldiers had to withdraw from [Syria] after their operations and missions in the region are complete.’’ Turkey is likely to face hardship on this front as well.
Nothing else is left at present but advising caution to both sides.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar