U.S. lawmakers take action on legislation to sanction Turkey

After months of strained relations with Turkey, U.S. lawmakers moved forward on two pieces of legislation this week that would punish Turkey for purchasing S-400 missile systems from Russia.

“U.S. officials are privately and publicly warning that the failure to resolve the S-400 issue is leading the U.S. inexorably to impose sanctions on Turkey,” Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Ahval.

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act introduced by its chairman, Republican Senator Jim Risch, and ranking member, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, with a bipartisan 18-to-4 vote.

“Now's the time for the Senate to come together and take this opportunity to change Turkey's behaviour,” Risch said.

The Risch-Menendez bill requires the White House to implement sanctions against Turkey for the purchase of Russian S-400s under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and further mandates targeted sanctions in response to Turkish military operations in Syria.

The House passed a similar sanctions bill in October by a veto-proof margin of 403-to-16.

The bill, “in combo with CAATSA, means no congressional sign off on weapons exports to Turkey,” said Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “So it is, de facto, an embargo.”

Senator’s Ted Cruz’s no vote against the bill in committee was notable given his fierce criticism of the Trump administration last week for failing to implement mandatory CAATSA sanctions on Russia.

The sole Democrat to vote against the bill, Senator Tom Udall, said he was concerned about the long-term implications of sanctioning a NATO ally and wanted an amendment that would require President Donald Trump to divest from his business interests in Turkey.

The final version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 (NDAA), which required months of negotiation, also addresses the S-400 issue. The House passed the defence bill on Wednesday evening and Trump said he would sign it immediately after the Senate vote.

The NDAA includes a Sense of Congress that Turkey’s S-400 purchase is a significant transaction under CAATSA and says the President should implement sanctions under that Act.

“The sanctions would be imposed on the Turkish persons engaged in accepting the S-400s,” said Peter Harrell, a sanctions expert at the Center for New American Security. “Presumably, this might mean some senior Turkish military officers involved in the S-400 acquisition and maybe some subsidiary part of the Turkish military.”

The United States suspended Turkey from the programme to build F-35s in July when it took delivery of the first S-400 components due to concerns that this would allow Russia to gather data on the advanced fighter jets.

Nate Schenkkan, the director of special research at Freedom House, argued it was time to accept that Turkey was giving up on full NATO membership. There is no mechanism to eject a member state, but Schenkkan said there were ways to compartmentalise Turkey within the alliance. He recommended the United States fully remove Turkey from the F-35 programme as punishment for the S-400 delivery.

Guided by the official summary of the NDAA, it has been widely reported that the bill prohibits the transfer of F-35 stealth fighter jets to Turkey. However, the full text of the NDAA outlines a continuation of the current suspension, not a complete removal.

Although the F-35 measure in the NDAA falls short of Schenkkan’s recommendation, he said: “It still is a strong message. It seems like Congress is on board with removal from the programme, so it’s just a matter of how they get there over time.”

While Schenkkan is glad the NDAA also asks the president to implement CAATSA sanctions against Turkey, he would “still like to see Congress pass separate legislation on this specifying the measures the White House should take, since CAATSA has a long menu of options and a strong waiver provision for the president.”

The Risch-Menendez bill would require the White House to impose specific sanctions. It states: “Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this act, the president shall impose five or more of the sanctions described in section 235 of [CAATSA] with respect to the government of Turkey.”

Risch told Defense News that he had initially agreed to hold off on sanctions when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “was presented with a plan by the United States that would allow him to get out of the hole he’s dug himself into. He couldn’t have the S-400, but we could get him out of it without there being any financial detriment to them.”

Turkey then went ahead and tested the S-400 radar, using U.S.-origin F-16 jets as simulated targets, ending Risch’s patience.

The powerful Republican senator appears confident his bill can pass with a veto-proof majority. “I suspect that bill's going to pass 98-2 on the floor,” he said, adding he would press Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has cautioned against sanctions bills, to allow a vote.

Harrell said it remains to be seen whether both chambers of Congress will take up and pass the Risch-Menendez bill. “There is clear bipartisan support in Congress for sanctions on Turkey, but President Trump still seems reluctant. And Republicans in Congress have proven pretty wary of passing legislation over Trump's objections,” he said.

On the Turkish side, “Erdoğan appears defiant,” Schanzer said. “But the more he digs in, the more legislators can enact new measures that could hurt Turkey economically.”

While Schenkkan agreed with lawmakers that the United States must act decisively to counteract Turkey’s troubling foreign policy behaviours, he is not in favour of new sanctions packages like the Risch-Menendez bill.

“I’m worried that broad new sanctions are going to hurt average Turkish citizens and help Erdoğan, because he can blame the decline of the economy on sanctions, whether it is true or not,” he said.

In addition to taking pragmatic steps to compartmentalise an authoritarian Turkey within the NATO alliance, Schenkkan would “like to see a positive set of measures as well to support Turkish human rights defenders and democratic activists, including making funds available for them. The Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act is a good starting place.”

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