Tensions, sanctions offer U.S. chance to reset Turkey policy

The continuing crisis in U.S.-Turkey relations and looming U.S. sanctions package against Turkey offer an opportunity for the United States to reassess its policy and craft a vision that points toward renewed partnership in a post-Erdoğan future. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week passed the Risch Bill, which aims to impose sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defences and its latest offensive in Syria. 

The Senate then unanimously passed the Armenian genocide resolution, after Republican senators had thrice blocked the motion, and on Tuesday it passed a defence bill that also calls for sanctions against Turkey and prohibits the delivery of F-35 fighter jets.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dismissed the Senate’s Armenian genocide decision as “null and void” and threatened to shut down a NATO radar base in southeast Turkey as well as Incirlik air base, which is used by U.S. forces, in response to U.S. sanctions. 

That might be just fine with Nate Schenkkan, director for special research at Freedom House. 

In a brief for Freedom House this month, he laid out a new U.S. policy toward Turkey that included expelling, rather than suspending, Turkey from the programme to build F-35 fighter jets, removing U.S. nuclear weapons from Incirlik and generally reducing the U.S. military presence in Turkey. Turkey and the United States have the two largest armies in NATO. 

“Maybe we don’t want a divorce, we want a separation,” Schenkkan told Ahval in a podcast. “But there’s no question that the U.S. still has interests it needs to protect because the bilateral relationship has gotten so unreliable and so volatile.”

As for sanctions, he said Congress should compel President Donald Trump to levy sanctions under the Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, which is mainly what the Risch bill does. 

For months, Trump has blocked any sanctions against Turkey for its S-400 purchase, which should have triggered CAATSA sanctions. This has frustrated U.S. lawmakers. “The pressure is building up and they’re looking to escalate,” said Schenkkan.

Schenkkan sees CAATSA sanctions for Turkey’s S-400 purchase as narrowly signalling the crossing of a red line that has been discussed with Turkish officials for more than two years, while some of the other proposed sanctions packages could devastate the Turkish economy or nearly sever the security relationship.  

“These are as much about U.S. domestic politics, and about frustrations Congress has with President Trump’s foreign policy, as they are about Turkey policy,” he said. “That’s not a good way to make big decisions about what is still a very important ally and partner.”

In a series of tweets early on Monday, Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund, predicted that U.S. sanctions levied as a result of the Risch bill would undermine Turkey’s economic growth and possibly push Erdoğan to consider calling for early elections in order to avoid a decline in support. 

Since Turkey launched its northeast Syria offensive on Oct. 9, rising nationalist sentiment has driven up support for Erdoğan. Many observers expect U.S. sanctions to also spur greater nationalist sentiment for a president seen as unfairly besieged. 

“It is a no-brainer that a rally-around-the-flag call based on the new wave of anti-Americanism that is sure to come would be the main campaign theme of President Erdoğan,” Ünlühisarcıklı said in a tweet. 

This sort of campaign rhetoric, combined with U.S.-Turkey tensions related to sanctions, the S-400 deal and Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria, has trickled down to the citizenry on both sides. 

According to a Pew Research poll out last week, just 2 percent of Turks view the United States as a top ally, down from 4 percent in 2007, and nearly half of Turks surveyed (46 percent) see the United States as the top threat to Turkey. A YouGov poll last month found just 6 percent of Americans see Turkey as an ally, while some 43 percent see Turkey as unfriendly or an enemy. 

“It’s been a very rough at least five years, probably 10 years, of decline in Turkey in terms of democratic standards,” said Schenkkan. “I don’t think Turkey can really turn that around without concrete actions.” 

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said last week that for the first time in four years Turkey was no longer the world’s leading jailer of journalists. That distinction now goes to China. 

The CPJ said the change did not signal an improved situation for Turkish media, but rather that Erdoğan had found new ways to stamp out independent reporting. Last week, two independent newspapers, BirGün and Evrensel, reported that the state body that places ads in newspapers had stopped advertising with them, resulting in a sharp decline in revenue. 

Schenkkan said that the government pulling its advertising from critical media outlets had likely reached a new peak, and that the main reason fewer journalists were being imprisoned was that so few independent news outlets were still operating. 

“There’s so many fewer outlets that engage in critical activities,” he said, pointing to the closure of some 180 outlets after the coup attempt, as well as government-backed media takeovers, like that of the Doğan Media Group last year.  

“You have a ton of journalists, including some pretty famous ones, who don’t have anywhere to write,” said Schenkkan. “They’ve purged the space to a very large degree.” 

Schenkkan argued that the United States should support and finance independent journalism in Turkey, as well as human rights activists and defenders, in an effort to keep the door open for a renewed partnership under new political leadership.

The United States does similar work in countries all over the world, and Schenkkan said it had established relationships and built momentum for democratic improvements. He acknowledged that such a policy would likely provide Erdoğan and other Turkish officials fodder for their anti-American rhetoric. 

“We’re going to be accused of coup plotting no matter what we do, it seems,” he said, pointing to the ongoing trial against Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, who is charged with attempting to overthrow the government because he took part in mass protests. Last week, the European Court of Human Rights called for Kavala’s immediate release. 

“Osman Kavala’s in prison for over two years for coup plotting, for something that has been ruled by the European Court of Human Rights to be total nonsense,” said Schenkkan. “I think that practically everyone who’s engaged in democracy and human rights work, whether they are foreign or local, has been accused of coup plotting.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.