Washington anger could break Trump’s block on sanctions on Turkey

Opposition to Turkey's military operation in northern Syria in Washington is growing louder. 

Three different sanctions bills that would severely damage President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government are progressing through Congress and have a good chance of passing before the weekend. 

Erdoğan’s Turkey was once lauded in Washington as an example of an Islamic democracy, but the president has slowly become a hate figure in the U.S. capital. Opposition to Erdoğan in Washington has widened and deepened since the president turned his back on the West and launched a widespread crackdown following the 2016 failed coup attempt.

What Turkey calls "Operation Peace Spring", or the "invasion of Syria," as the rest of the world calls it, has led to new and unprecedented tension between Turkey and its supposed Western allies. A storm appears to be brewing, and one that Turkey may find it hard to avoid.

Influential senators, Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Chris Van Hollen have co-sponsored a bill that would freeze the U.S. assets of Erdoğan, the vice president and senior ministers, sanction the energy sector and prohibit the sale of U.S. defence equipment, services, technology and material to the Turkish Armed Forces for use in Syria.

A new draft of the bill could be further sharpened when Congress returns from a recess on Tuesday.

The Graham-Van Hollen Bill also urges implementation of measures against Turkey through the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) that Trump has blocked until now.

The draft requires a report on Erdoğan’s net worth and assets and calls for visa restrictions on Turkish leaders travelling to the United States.

Graham on Sunday praised an agreement apparently reached with Trump to work together on a package of sanctions on Turkey. Graham said in a series of tweets that he had just spoken with Trump.

“I applaud his decision to work with Congress to stop Turkey’s aggression in Syria through crippling economic sanctions. This decision by President Trump will be a game changer - in all the wrong ways - for Turkey,” Graham said.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel, a Democrat, and senior Republican committee member Michael McCaul also introduced a new sanctions bill last week. It calls for sanctions on Turkey until the Syria operation stops and targets senior officials involved in the offensive and banks engaged in the defence sector. The Engel-McCaul Bill proposes targeted financial sanctions on Halkbank, the largest publicly owned Turkish bank, and other third parties cooperating with the Turkish government. 

The bill requires a report on the net worth and assets of President Erdoğan, just like the draft proposed by Graham and Van Hollen, and calls for the U.S. administration to sanction Turkey for its Russian S-400 missile system purchase. Additionally, it would prohibit U.S. arms exports to the Turkish Armed Forces and prohibit the use of the emergency provision in the Arms Export Control Act for Turkey.

The bill specifically references the Turkish defence minister, the chief of the general staff, the commander of the 2nd Army, who is overseeing the operation, and Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdoğan's son-in-law. 

The third sanction bill in the US House of Representatives is one drafted by Congressman Dan Crenshaw together with some 30 Republican colleagues. Republican Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, along with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Minority Whip Steve Scalise and House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry are some of the heavyweights who have backed the measure.

Senate leader Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the Democrats Chuck Schumer, Speaker of the House Democrat Nancy Pelosi and the minority leader Republican Kevin McCarthy are also opposing Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops, and apart from McConnell, all are known to be in favour of sanctions on Turkey.

Such a consensus has strengthened expectations that both sides of Congress will approve the packages by more than the two-thirds majority necessary to make them immune from presidential veto. No wonder that one of Trump's tweets on Sunday was about the broad consensus on sanctions against Turkey.

Trump has presented his decision to bring troops home as fulfilling a campaign promise, but abandoning the Kurds, who led the ground war against Islamic State, has outraged even the evangelical leaders very close to Trump and the tens of millions of voters who support them. Leading evangelicals such as Franklin Graham are fuming at Trump.

So, what will Trump do?

The killing of Hervin Khalaf, secretary-general of the Future Syria Party and other unarmed Kurdish civilians by Turkey-backed Syrian militias, which appeared on social media on Saturday, has fuelled U.S. anger against Erdoğan. This and other likely future incidents will fuel the rage of U.S. politicians and make them less likely to back away from sanctions.

Trump has so far protected Erdoğan. It is clear that it was Trump who blocked heavy fines being imposed on Halkbank for laundering the proceeds of oil-for-gold scheme that broke U.S. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.

Trump has been also holding off CAATSA sanctions due to Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. 

But Trump’s years of shielding Erdoğan from sanctions may now come to an end with the Syria operation. If Turkey does not suddenly halt the Syria operation before Congress returns on Tuesday, the growing tide of anger in Washington may burst the Trump dam and unleash a wave of sanctions.