Turkey, US should work together to get rid of shadow of sanctions

Turkey, US should work together to get rid of shadow of sanctions

With around more than a month to hand over the White House to President-elect Joe Biden, the Trump administration has taken the inevitable step and imposed sanctions on Turkey over its acquisition of S-400 air defense systems from Russia.

Since a NATO member imposing sanctions on another allied country is not an everyday event, the U.S. move against the Turkish defense industry should be evaluated from many angles.

Washington’s sanctions come just days after the European Union sanctioned Turkey over its hydrocarbon activities in the eastern Mediterranean, revisiting questions about the latter’s future ties with its traditional allies.

However, at the same time, these sanctions under the Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) come as Turkey and its allies in the West mull how to restore and normalize ties after years of tension.

Using this controversy as an opportunity is a very difficult task but not impossible. That’s why a good study of the American sanctions is necessary.

Let’s start with the timing: For many in Washington and Ankara, it’s better to have the sanctions imposed during the Trump administration. This will prevent the incoming Biden administration from immediately ratcheting up tension with Turkey and introduce room and time for the formulation of the relationship with the NATO ally.

This is also in line with Ankara’s preparations for the new era with the Biden administration. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has hinted that he would be ready to engage in dialogue with Biden as both men have come to know each other very well over the years. Thus, Ankara does not see the imposition of the sanctions as a discouraging effect on joint efforts to mend ties.

As for the content, targeting the Defense Industry Presidency and its four top officials shows that Washington took pains to limit the sanctions to the top defense industry body and its executives. The sanctions did not contain any punitive measure against the Turkish economy, its financial institutions or banking system. That’s why the markets’ reaction to the sanctions was not significant.

Nevertheless, Washington made it clear that it will use all means at its disposal against countries that plan to procure weapons from Russia. Holding off on sanctions against Turkey, which bought and tested the S-400s, would send the wrong message to other countries, like India, Malaysia or Saudi Arabia, the United States believes.

As İsmail Demir, the head of the Defense Industries (SSB) Presidency, has pointed out, the sanctions will not have an immediate impact on the Turkish defense industry, since Ankara has long been working to mitigate the risks that may arise from sanctions. In this sense, Demir said the SSB’s efforts to become a self-dependent institution will accelerate in the coming period.

For the record: the existing contracts between the United States and the SSB won’t be affected by the sanctions, but they will not be renewed when they expire. Plus, the sanctions will remain in place until “the government of Turkey and any person acting on its behalf no longer possesses the S-400 air defense system or a successor system,” according to U.S. law.

This shows that sanctions do not solve the problem concerning the S-400s but will make its resolution much more difficult. It’s quite unlikely that Turkey’s government will take a step back in the face of sanctions, as it has the backing of almost all political parties to this end.

The best option for Turkey and the United States would be to delay the problem over a period of time so that Ankara and the new administration can find time to tackle it. Many questions on future Ankara-Washington ties will have to wait a couple of weeks more as the Biden administration needs to formulate its policy toward Turkey.

At the end of the day, although the measures were targeted and well-calculated so as to avoid hurting the Turkish economy, sanctions are still “sanctions” and reflect the countries’ troubled bilateral relations. Without question, escaping the shadow of sanctions is going to require a mutual effort.