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US could sanction Turkey over Syria, S-400 but may make things worse

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  • The US on Wednesday lifted sanctions recently imposed on Turkey after Ankara agreed to a permanent ceasefire in Syria.
  • US lawmakers are considering additional sanctions, but they need to carefully consider what those entail and make clear how to get them lifted in order to change Turkey’s behavior, writes Enea Gjoza, a research fellow at Defense Priorities.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump said Turkey had agreed to a permanent ceasefire in Syria, resulting in the lifting of US sanctions imposed on October 14.

The original sanctions were intentionally light so as not to spur a crisis in Turkey, whose economy has been weakening for some time. But several congressional sanctions bills intended to punish Turkey remain in the works, and the US could still impose sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air-defense system.

Abrupt, punitive sanctions could have severe consequences however, provoking Turkey into antagonizing the US in Syria and elsewhere rather than moderating its behavior.

turkey syria

Residents applaud a Turkish convoy carrying tanks in Sanliurfa province, at the border with Syria in southeastern Turkey, October 12, 2019.
Associated Press/Lefteris Pitarakis


Sanctions are one of the few mechanisms the US still retains to pressure Turkey’s recalcitrant president, Recep Erdoğan. Turkey is a NATO member with one of the strongest militaries in the alliance, so a threat of US military action is not credible (or wise).

But imposing sanctions punitively rather than strategically to obtain concessions follows a pattern that has yielded few political gains for the US in the past.

Punitive US sanctions against authoritarian regimes in the past have generally caused economic hardship but have failed to achieve the desired change to the target’s behavior. Sanctions on Russia following its takeover of Crimea failed to yield the peninsula’s return. Sanctions also didn’t stop Russia from supporting a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, which it continues to do.

Similarly, while “maximum pressure” severely damaged Iran’s economy, Tehran actually accelerated its provocative behavior, carrying out numerous unusually brazen attacks on tankers and oil facilities in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also refused to negotiate unless the US lifted all sanctions, making diplomacy far more difficult, as neither side can compromise without appearing to capitulate.

Once the economic pain hits, Turkish nationalism and hostility to the US would spur further defiance, making securing any concessions difficult.

Know the risks and how to avoid them

iran sanctions bazaar

A near-empty carpet bazaar in Tabriz, Iran.
Masoud Soheili/Business Insider


Erdoğan too has defied foreign pressure before, most recently flouting the threat of US sanctions to purchase Russia’s S-400 platform. Turkey was kicked out of the F-35 program as a result and could still face legislatively mandated sanctions. The administration attempted to strike a deal to avert these sanctions, but it appears to have stalled given congressional outrage at Turkey’s behavior.

Severe US sanctions without an obvious off-ramp for Ankara will likely motivate resistance rather than cooperation. Erdoğan may see flouting the United States and European Union as a way to appeal to Turkish nationalism and shore up his eroding support.

And he is likely to flout the US, as he has in the past, but he may also retaliate against US interests in the region. This could be an intensified campaign against Kurds outside the current “safe zone,” reduced access to the US Air Force base in Incirlik (which houses 50 US nuclear weapons), or the pursuit of Turkey’s own nuclear arsenal.

Erdoğan could also make good on his threat to “open the gates” and send Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees to Europe, or accelerate his military and strategic cooperation with Russia.

erdogan

Erdogan during a visit to Beijing, on July 2, 2019.
Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via Reuters


US sanctions fail when they are punitive rather than realistically designed to change political behavior. Once sanctions are enacted, foreign autocrats are often willing to absorb economic pain rather than capitulate, seeing what they’re sanctioned for as more valuable than the cost of sanctions.

The haphazard nature with which US sanctions are often enforced also undermines them as a tool of negotiation—often the target, like Iran, cannot be sure a change in behavior will actually get them lifted. This encourages them to gamble and pursue their agenda anyway.

A clear ask and clear risks

The US can depress Turkey’s economy, and Congress can leverage that to extract meaningful concessions.

This requires that Turkey be presented with a clear list of demands and that Congress lay out a series of broad, severe sanctions to be applied in a specific timeframe while outlining clear conditions Turkey must meet to avoid them. This threat should be accompanied by a parallel diplomatic process to move Ankara to compromise.

If no progress is made and sanctions are enacted, the Turkish public will know its government had a chance to respond. And Turkish leaders will know exactly what behavior will result in the sanctions being lifted.

turkey syria

Turkish soldiers watch the Syrian town of Kobani from near the Mursitpinar border crossing in the Turkish town of Suruc, near the border with Syria, October 4, 2014.
REUTERS/Murad Sezer


Some of these elements were reflected in the administration’s diplomacy with the Turks, but congressional sanctions in the works appear to be purely punitive.

Without a clear ask, direct communications between Congress and Turkey, and a guarantee that the legislation will be repealed if Turkey complies, Erdoğan is likely to claim duplicity by the US and double down on his policies.

The desire to punish Turkey for its aggression should not overshadow the need for smart economic diplomacy. Turkey’s government understands it has much to lose if severe sanctions become real but will only cooperate if the US provides a face-saving way to avoid economic catastrophe.

A properly designed sanctions schedule, combined with direct engagement of Ankara, can avoid the permanent collapse of US-Turkish relations.

Enea Gjoza is a research fellow at Defense Priorities.

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