Sanctions highlight vicious cycle eroding U.S.-Turkey ties

The sanctions imposed on Turkey by U.S President Trump on Monday underscore deeply problematic decision-making in Ankara and Washington and worsening relations that benefit neither side, German Marshall Fund senior fellow Nicholas Danforth said in an Ahval podcast. 

Seven days into Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria, some 133 Syrian Kurdish fighters have been killed and more than 150,000 people have been displaced, with reports of roadside executions by Turkey-backed rebels. 

Trump said in his statement on Monday that Turkey’s failures to mitigate these problems had spurred the sanctions against its defence, interior and energy ministers. But President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan escaped the personal sanctions foreseen in a bipartisan bill making its way through Congress.

“Turkey has continuously banked on the fact that it could work with Trump to avoid paying any price for antagonising literally everyone else in Washington,” said Danforth, adding that such a policy would always have a limited shelf life. 

After he did not take any action against Turkey for buying a Russian missile defence system, which should have triggered sanctions according to U.S. law, Danforth said there was “something surreal” about Trump now sanctioning Turkey for a military offensive he seemed to approve. But the move was not surprising.  

“This is exactly the risk Turkey took when it put all its faith in Trump,” said Danforth, who described the sanctions as Trump “throwing Erdoğan under the bus”. 

“Plenty of people warned Erdoğan that this might be the result of his policy,” he said. 

As for Washington, Danforth said that the grandiose threats by U.S. officials, such as Trump threatening to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy, combined with deeply vague red lines all but ensured that sanctions threats would fail to dissuade Turkey from its planned course of action. 

Turkey has repeatedly stated that its two objectives are to dismantle any Syrian Democratic (SDF) entity in northern Syria and return up to two million refugees to a planned safe zone. Erdoğan reiterated this view in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Tuesday. 

But Danforth said those might not be Turkey’s true intentions. 

“There often seems to be a remarkable discrepancy between the stated ambitions of the Turkish government, in this case carving out a large safe zone across northeastern Syria, and their somewhat smaller strategic objectives that they sometimes seem to have in the back of their head,” he said. 

The withdrawal of U.S. troops, the SDF protection deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad and the new round of U.S. sanctions likely mean that Turkey will not get the safe zone it wanted nor be able to resettle millions of Syrian refugees, yet this is still not a bad outcome for Turkey, according to Danforth. The United States, the SDF’s main ally and protector, is gone, and the SDF has lost its autonomous entity and now comes back under the control of the Syrian government. 

The Kurds will likely pay the highest price, but there has also been significant and likely long-lasting damage done to U.S.-Turkey relations. 

“I worry that you’re going to get a very unhealthy dynamic, in which the U.S. continues to impose sanctions to prove a point, Turkey continues to ignore U.S. pressure to prove a point, and ultimately U.S.-Turkish relations get worse and worse, to no strategic benefit for the U.S. or Turkey,” said Danforth.