Unprecedented sanctions move by the U.S. could be only the beginning

For almost a year now there has been speculation in Washington that the Trump administration was preparing a list of Turkish entities and individuals to sanction for imprisoning U.S. citizens and Turkish employees of its diplomatic missions.

U.S. officials said in early 2018 that the list could include some government officials as well as Turkish businesspeople closely linked to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

But no one could have guessed the sanctions would start by banning Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu from entering the United States and freezing their U.S. assets.

The unprecedented move, made under the Magnitsky Act that allows sanctions for human rights abuses, was in retaliation for Turkey’s 21-month imprisonment of American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson. Brunson, who has lived in Turkey serving a congregation of little more than a dozen for more than 20 years, is charged with supporting both a banned conservative Islamist group and left-wing Kurdish armed militants.

Though a Turkish court transferred Brunson to house arrest last week, that failed to assuage the United States and may have even triggered President Donald Trump’s angry threat of sanctions a day later as, according to the Washington Post, he thought he had made a deal with Erdoğan in which the pastor would be freed.

Soylu has frequently accused the United States of involvement in the failed coup to topple Erdoğan in 2016, but has not travelled to the United States since he became interior minister in August of that year.

Also hanging over Turkey is the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed by the Senate on Wednesday. It includes a clause delaying delivery of F-35 advanced fighter jets to Turkey. If Trump does not unexpectedly veto the bill, it will oblige the Pentagon to prepare a plan outlining how to phase Turkey out of the production chain of the jets.

The report has to be prepared within 90 days and during that time transfers of F-35s to Turkey are to be halted. If within 90 days outstanding issues like Turkey's purchase of Russian S-400 air defence system have not been resolved, the likely scenario is that the U.S. Congress will block the delivery of the jets altogether.

Of course, the target of U.S. sanctions is not the U.S. assets of individuals like Soylu and Gül, but the ban on two top officials of an important NATO ally is entirely symbolic and is an indirect hit at Turkish strongman Erdoğan.

Dozens of other allies of Erdoğan are also unable to travel to the United States for fear of being arrested in connection with the oil-for-gold scheme to bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran in which a string of senior Turkish officials were implicated.

It seems likely that that the Erdoğan government will respond in kind. This economic effect of these sanctions is already apparent. The Turkish currency slumped to a record low of below 5 lira to the dollar after the sanctions were announced.

But this could be just the beginning.

A U.S. official I spoke to said a sanction list similar to those against Russia could be in the making. Just like Russian oligarchs, certain Turkish businesspeople, known to be closely linked to the Turkish administration, could also be blacklisted as well as government officials accused of human rights violations.

The same official said some of the names on the sanctions list might not be the usual suspects, such as officials and businesspeople connected to the oil-for-gold sanctions-busting scheme.

The U.S. administration adds new names to be sanctioned every few months, along with officials from other countries as part of the Magnitsky Act. Gül and Soylu could be just two of those, and it is quite possible to see more pro-government Turkish businesspeople find themselves in upcoming lists.

These sanctions mark the first time the United States has imposed an embargo on ministers of any NATO ally.

Hilal Kaplan, a Turkish journalist known to be closely aligned with Erdoğan, reacted immediately to the sanctions by tweeting about Turkey leaving NATO.  Her messages could be a sign of things to come. It's time to buckle up.

We are now in unchartered territory; no one can predict where the U.S.-Turkey relationship may go from here.

There is Trump on one side and populist Turkish leader Erdoğan on the other and U.S. mid-term elections are just around the corner. We will see what happens when the freewheeling populist leaders of these two countries come head to head.

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