US sanctions on the horizon for Turkey in 2018
Relations between Turkey and the U.S., which have been going through an intense stress test since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last May to go ahead with a Pentagon proposal to send heavy weapons to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, closed this painful year with a relatively positive vibe thanks to the last-minute settlement of the visa spat. The U.S. decided to fully resume visa services in Turkey in the last days of 2017 after 80 days of crisis diplomacy between Ankara and Washington.
The initial U.S. expectations for the release of an Istanbul consulate’s local member of staff, Metin Topuz, were not met. Another U.S. employee of the Adana consulate, Hamza Uluçay, is still under custody, so is the American pastor Andrew Brunson. At this stage the U.S. side, rather than insisting on strict conditions for their release, preferred to count on the high-level assurances given by Turkish authorities that there are no other investigations underway targeting their local staff and they would not be arrested for doing their jobs.
Clearly Washington has made the calculations for possible consequences of further prolonging the limitations to visa services in Turkey at a time when anti-Americanism in the country reached alarmingly high levels. The decision for suspension of the visa services brought more harm than good by jeopardizing people to people contacts, which are more important than ever for the sake of the relationship.
Better late than never we might think, however, the closure of the visa parenthesis was indeed getting rid of the least difficult of the problems between the two countries. It almost feels like Washington cleared the space before storms ahead in 2018.
Without doubt the first major crisis will evolve around Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense systems from Russia. Since it is now official that Turkey finalized a credit agreement to buy four batteries for $2.5 million, we might expect that already existing sanctions talk at the U.S. Congress would pick up action.
Back in October the State Department blacklisted 39 Russian companies and government organizations tied to the defense and intelligence sectors among which are Rosoboronexport and Rostec, the exporter and the producer of the S-400s. The publication of the list was an obligation for the State Department as a response to the bill approved in Congress in August to punish Russia for interference in the 2016 elections. Anyone in the U.S. or elsewhere doing significant transactions with those companies could face sanctions starting from the end of next month.
Since the purchase of the S-400s have been completed after Rosoboronexport and Rostec were designated, it might be difficult for Ankara to escape possible ramifications.
The attitude toward President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government at Capitol Hill is unanimously hostile following the violence perpetrated by Erdoğan’s security details toward protestors during his official visit to Washington in May. The human rights violations, arbitrary detentions, silencing of the opposition and civil society have been the focus of U.S. lawmakers more than ever in their dealings with Turkey. With this current mood in play, a majority of the members of the U.S. congress would not blink an eye in tabling sanctions to penalize Turkey for sealing the deal with state-run Russian arms companies.
The second area of contention would most likely continue to be what was once called the Reza Zarrab case at the District Court for the Southern District in New York. As much as the Turkish government seems to be relieved that Zarrab’s revelations in court fell short of expectations of the opposition groups in society, there might be destructive consequences of the verdict against Halkbank Deputy General Manager Hakan Atilla, who is charged with violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Especially if the rumors are true that the Turkish government is getting ready to dispute and refuse to pay a possible fine which might be imposed on Halkbank by the U.S. Treasury. In that case, Turkey may face sanctions that would affect the whole banking system in the country.
With possible sanctions on the horizon, not a sign of any progress on Fethullah Gülen’s extradition file and the U.S. continuing to count on the YPG in Syria, nobody should expect magic to happen in 2018 in Turkish-American relations. However, the visa spat has been a good reminder that instead of high-level fervent public outburst resorting to classic diplomacy once in a while might not be a bad idea.