U.S. policy against Turkey could harden as sanctions calls grow

The departure of the U.S. State Department official directing Turkey policy could mark a change of direction for Washington as it removes one of the staunchest opponents to sanctions on Ankara at a time when many in Congress are calling for tough measures to be imposed over human rights concerns.

Jonathan Cohen has been deputy assistant secretary covering Cyprus, Greece and Turkey since August 2016. The White House formally nominated Cohen in February to take up a post at the United Nations as a deputy to U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Cohen’s appointment still needs to be confirmed by the Senate and it is not yet clear who will replace him.

President Donald Trump’s administration has still yet to fill many U.S. State Department positions and ambassadorial posts, a delay already felt in Turkey. The U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass was assigned to Afghanistan in June last year, but no one has yet been nominated to replace him in Ankara.

Cohen's position in discussions at the State Department against sanctioning Turkey and his preference for new mechanisms to overcome issues between the two countries is well known.

Following Secretary Rex Tillerson's visit to Ankara last month, the State Department announced the two NATO countries would establish three mechanisms to work on the relationship between them, with the first meetings taking place in March.

Cohen’s leaving from Turkey post comes at a time when there is a strong wave of sentiment against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan within Congress concerning Turkey’s human rights record, its arrest of journalists, U.S. citizens and U.S. consular workers and Ankara’s ordering of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems.

How long the State Department can resist the desire of Congress to punish Turkey’s strongman is unknown.

After Tillerson's visit to Ankara, there was a sense that Cohen was one of the leading actors pushing back against calls for sanctions on Turkey, instead calling for the administration to wait-and-see whether the new mechanisms work. After Cohen leaves the State Department, it remains to be seen whether the pushback against sanctions will remain as strong.

Cohen recently attracted attention at a meeting at the Middle East Institute in Washington by describing the U.S. relationship with the Syrian Kurds as a "tactical relationship, not a strategic relationship", implying the United States might abandon the Syrian Kurdish forces it has worked with to all but defeat Islamic State (ISIS) once the fight was over. Such a move would be something very welcome in Turkey.

But now the U.S. Congress is discussing whether the United States should sanction Turkey using the Magnitsky Act that allows the administration to impose measures against foreign government officials or individuals implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world.

The Magnitsky Act could thus be used to impose measures against Turkish officials or businessmen who have played a direct role in human rights violations in Turkey, even if the actions did not directly involve the United States or its citizens. Indeed, Global Magnitsky sanctions can target businessmen for corruption regardless of whether human rights violations are involved. The exact language is as follows: 

(3) is a government official, or a senior associate of such an official, that is responsible for, or complicit in, ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, acts of significant corruption, including the expropriation of private or public assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, bribery, or the facilitation or transfer of the proceeds of corruption to foreign jurisdictions;


(4) has materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services insupport of, an activity described in paragraph (3).

Some U.S. sources in Washington compare the current impasse between the United States and Turkey to 1974, when despite the U.S. administration’s opposition, Congress sanctioned Turkey over its invasion of northern Cyprus and in return Turkey closed the U.S. air base at Incirlik, southern Turkey. That period marked one of the lowest points in relations between Turkey and the United States.

Today's political climate between two countries, many in Washington say, is quite like that of 1974.

In addition, Turkey's purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system would possibly trigger CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act).

Washington sources said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell had visited Ankara just before Tillerson, and reminded Turkish officials of the seriousness of the S-400 purchase along with other issues. His trip was not reported in the media.

Turkey's offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in Afrin has meanwhile been greatly criticised in the U.S. media.

U.S. General Joseph L Votel told a Congressional Armed Services Commission meeting on Tuesday that the Syrian Kurds were the most effective force against ISIS and despite Ankara’s reaction, he said, "we need them (the Syrian Kurds) to finish this, to finish this fight".

U.S. officials and commanders are saying at every opportunity that the war against ISIS is not yet over and that if the Syrian Kurds refused to fight, the United States would need to deploy more forces in Syria. That would be a nightmare scenario for the Trump administration, which who does not want to send more military troops to the Middle East.

Speaking to the New York Times, Trump administration senior officials said more and more Kurdish forces and commanders were leaving the fight against ISIS and said this development was increasingly worrying Washington.

Speaking to reporters on Feb. 22, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said: “We can no longer fight ISIS the way that we would fully like to be able to do."

Five different U.S. military officials who spoke to the New York Times stated that Kurdish forces and their commanders had left the fight against ISIS to defend Afrin against Turkish forces.

Nauert said on Thursday that Afrin fell within the scope of the UN Security Council resolution calling for a Syrian ceasefire and asked Ankara to stop the military operation. It seems both the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department are increasingly uneasy about Turkey's Afrin incursion.

It would not come as a surprise if Western pressure on Turkey becomes more intense in the coming days. So far the United State, the United Nations and the European Union, France and other European countries have called on Turkey to abide by the ceasefire in Syria.

Turkish former foreign minister Yasar Yakis wrote on Ahval on Friday that the UN ceasefire call would allow Turkey to recalibrate its Syria and particularly its Afrin policy. So far the Turkish government appears unmoved.