Turkey’s ties to Maduro could lead to U.S. sanctions

As the crisis in Venezuela mounts, tensions between Turkey and the United States appear to be heading towards a standoff over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s support for his embattled Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro.

The United States has come out strongly in support of Juan Guaido, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, who is challenging Maduro. Turkey’s position on the Venezuelan crisis has helped to drive a wedge further into U.S.-Turkey relations, already strained over Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 defence systems and other contentious issues.

The trajectory of this rift could follow that of the dispute over pastor Andrew Brunson who was arrested in Turkey in 2016 on terrorism charges and released two years later after the United States sanctioned two Turkish ministers and doubled tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from Turkey. The Turkish lira slumped to a record low.

Washington has expressed increasing displeasure over Turkey’s reluctance to cut ties with the Maduro government. The biggest U.S. concern is that NATO ally Turkey is helping Maduro evade economic sanctions by dealing in Venezuelan gold, a plot reminiscent of the oil-for-gold sanctions-busting scheme conducted by Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab involving a Turkish state-owned bank and officials from Turkey and Iran.

“Turkey's support for the Maduro regime obviously is completely contrary to U.S. policy and very unhelpful. We will continue to take a look at ways in which that support takes place, and in the context of sanctions by the U.S. Treasury,” U.S. special representative to Venezuela Elliot Abrams said this week.

Senator Ted Cruz earlier said the U.S. administration had a list of Turkish entities that are moving gold for Venezuela and asked Abrams to outline how the administration intended to address what he called “bad actors”.

Venezuelan Minister of Industry and National Production Tareck El Aissami has visited Turkey a number of times in the last two years and met Erdoğan and other high-level Turkish officials. The United States this month announced charges against Aissami for circumventing sanctions and violating the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. In January, El-Aissami toured the Anatolian town of Çorum, where Turkey refines gold and then visited Erdoğan at his palace in Ankara.

Guaido has said many high-level Maduro government officials have already left for Turkey, now considered a possible refuge for the president if he relinquishes power.

Senior U.S. officials have warned that U.S. authorities are monitoring trade between Turkey and Venezuela and would take action if it judges sanctions have been violated. Senator Marco Rubio warned Turkey not to be an accomplice in what he called the outrageous crime of bypassing U.S. sanctions by shipping gold out of Venezuela.

But U.S. pressure appears to have had little effect on Turkey’s enthusiasm to sustain relations with Maduro. Turkish officials have said the trade with Venezuela would continue regardless of U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, Maduro government members continue to visit Turkey.

Ankara’s intransigence may push the United States to take new steps against Turkey. The Trump administration has already warned foreign financial institutions and banks that they could face U.S. sanctions if they engage in transactions benefiting the Maduro government. Cruz is now also pushing for legislation that would punish countries, particularly Turkey, industries or financial institutions caught moving gold from Venezuela.

Despite Erdoğan’s defiance, he is well aware of the possible consequences. It is no secret that Trump favours using economic sanctions as a tool of foreign policy. Following numerous failed warnings over Brunson’s imprisonment, it was only after the two ministers were sanctioned and metal tariffs increased that Turkey freed the pastor.

The Trump administration's decision this month to end key trade preferences for Turkey could be seen as a sign of things to come. U.S. sanctions could inflict serious damage on the Turkish economy, already suffering from recession, high unemployment and inflation.

Erdoğan’s support for an authoritarian regime thousands of miles away could cost Turkey dearly.

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

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