US sanctions on Turkey are wrong and can backfire

US sanctions on Turkey are wrong and can backfire

The U.S. Treasury’s move to put Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on its sanctions list on Aug. 1, saying that it was because of their role in the arrest of American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, caused outrage in Turkey. The Turkish Foreign Ministry strongly condemned it, asking for its cancellation while also vowing to take reciprocal action. Four parties in the Turkish Parliament released a joint declaration against the American move. The Turkish-American Business Council was the first institution to protest the move as “unacceptable” and called on the two sides’ presidents, Donald Trump and Tayyip Erdoğan, to give diplomacy a chance in order to put the two allies’ relations back on track. 

In a nutshell, the U.S. sanctions worked as a “rally ‘round the flag effect” factor in Turkey. And not only in Turkey. The move instigated by Vice President Mike Pence is likely to endorse Erdoğan’s “hero against the imperialist hegemony” image among Muslims, not at a governmental level, but among the general public. This is the first time the U.S. is imposing sanctions, and in a very heavy way, on a NATO ally. The sanctions are issued under the Global Magnitsky Act of 2012, which had been issued for 18 Russian officials and businessmen before. On Aug. 2, the U.S. moved to sanction some more Russian figures under the same act.

By coincidence or not, General Curtis Scaparrotti, head of U.S. European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander, was in Ankara on Aug. 1 to talk about NATO operations and Syria with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Chief of Staff General Yaşar Güler. Scaparrotti visited Turkey’s strategic İncirlik air base, which is used for NATO operations, on Aug. 2 before going to the Aegean province of İzmir, where the NATO Land Command headquarters are and where Brunson has been living for many years and is currently under arrest.  

Some commentators have been saying that the sanctions plunged relations into a point of no return and Turkish-U.S. relations were now broken. They are severely damaged, but not broken yet. There are a few indications for that. 

1. There was a telephone call between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu only a few hours before the sanctions were announced. The details of what was discussed were not revealed. 

2. The written statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry came three hours after the announcement, which led to comments that there must have been intense thought put into it and that it was in the strongest possible language. The statement also says the sanctions are damaging ongoing efforts for a solution.

3. Yesterday, on Aug. 2, there were reports that Çavuşoğlu might meet with Pompeo in Singapore, where they are for the ASEAN meetings —Turkey’s first attendance in the summit. 

4. As of the evening of Aug. 2, there was no statement from Erdoğan even though he made a public appearance. 

5. Erdoğan’s spokesman and chief foreign and security policy advisor İbrahim Kalın had a press conference but said nothing on the subject.

These points can show us that Ankara is still expecting an acceptable exit from the situation, gives a chance to diplomacy, thinks there is room to maneuver, and also takes time to make countermoves if diplomacy fails. The U.S. had imposed an arms embargo on Turkey in 1975, in the wake of Turkey’s Cyprus intervention. Turkey had responded by closing all its military facilities to the U.S. forces for three years.

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