Magnitsky sanctions list against Turks shaping up at the Capitol Hill
This week’s budget hearings at the U.S. Congress, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified in front of the Foreign Affairs Committees of both the House and the Senate, were quite revealing in terms of the challenging agenda for the upcoming June 4 meeting between Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. As expected, members of Congress pressed Pompeo on the ongoing detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey, the purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system, and the delivery of F-35 fighter jets.
The first notable point in Pompeo’s remarks was about the ongoing debate on whether the U.S. would block delivery of F-35s to Turkey due to Ankara’s declared intention to deploy S-400s on Turkish soil. Although Turkey has been a co-partner to the F-35 project and already paid some of its share, U.S. lawmakers have drafted two separate bipartisan bills to halt delivery if Ankara does not pledge to cease the deal with Moscow or release Pastor Brunson.
When the F-35 issue was first raised in the House of Representatives on May 23, Pompeo said he has not made a decision on the delivery yet. The next day when he was asked again at the Senate, Pompeo said the Turks’ capacity to access F-35s is still a very live issue and the administration is doing “everything in its capacity,” including offering alternatives to reverse the Turkish government’s commitment to conclude the purchase of S-400s.
Pompeo might be just three or four weeks in his tenure as the Secretary of State but certainly is not a stranger to the debate as the former director of the CIA. The deployment of an advanced Russian defense technology like S-400 on Turkish soil has been regarded as having potential to breach the security of the NATO systems therefore it is also very much an intelligence matter for Americans. His statements at the Capitol Hill clearly reflected that the Trump administration does indeed see the delivery of F-35s as an important leverage in the grand bargain ahead with Ankara.
The second crucial point in Pompeo’s remarks was about the Manbij knot in Syria. Ankara has been threatening to extend “Operation Olive Branch” unless the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) withdraw from the strategically located city where U.S. troops also operate.
Pompeo referred to the roadmap that his predecessor Rex Tillerson committed to find a solution on Manbij, but he did not clarify whether he would stick to the implementation of this roadmap without reservations.
Sources tell me despite Tillerson’s eagerness to work with Turks to reach a compromise, up to now the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has been very much against a total withdrawal from Manbij of their local allies the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are mainly composed of YPG fighters. Meanwhile, Pompeo has been holding his cards close to his chest and not signaling much whether he will come up with a different position from that of Tillerson.
Last but not the least, Pompeo during the hearings at the Capitol Hill confirmed that the Brunson case would be one of his priorities in his meeting with Çavuşoğlu, describing Pastor’s detention as “deeply wrong, immoral and unjust.”
Meanwhile, the pressure campaign for the release of Brunson - spearheaded by several senators inlcuding Thom Tillis, James Lankford and Jeanne Shaheen - is about to take a new turn with the possible release of a sanctions list targeting certain individuals in Turkey. I have recently learned that the office of the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Senator Bob Corker, has already drafted names to sanction under the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016.
Two names drafted are former Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan and former EU Minister Egemen Bağış. Çağlayan was one of the nine defendants in the Iran sanctions evasion case in New York where turned witness Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab admitted to have bribed the former minister to run the scheme. Although Egemen Bağış was not a defendant in the same case, Zarrab told the court Bağış had helped him set up an account at Aktif Bank to pursue the gold-trade with Iran.
Rumors say that the list drafted at the Senate will possibly include one or two other names, who the U.S. lawmakers believe were directly involved in framing Pastor Brunson as ‘terorrist’ and making him impossible to get fair trial.
Even if these circulating lists turn into some sort of a resolution in the Senate in the next coming weeks, it will be up to the Trump administration to decide whether or not to apply Global Magnitsky sanctions to a group of Turkish individuals. As much as U.S. diplomats like whining about the hasty actions of Congress in their talks with Turkish counterparts, we have witnessed that in some cases it was the lawmakers who provided the necessary ammunition for the diplomatic battles. The Pompeo-Çavuşoğlu summit will probably not be any different.