Why would Turkey’s Erdoğan ask for U.S. sanctions?

U.S. President Donald Trump’s team has settled on the package of sanctions to impose on Turkey in response to its acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system, but was waiting until after Monday’s third anniversary of the failed Turkish coup to announce the measures.

The U.S. president though, Bloomberg noted, is the “wild card” where the package is concerned and could derail or delay any action. Turkey risks falling foul of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and expulsion from the programme to help build and operate the latest F-35 stealth fighter jets if it installs the Russian system.

Despite the threat, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday hurled some of his harshest rhetoric yet against the West, but lavishly praised Russia, telling a group of pro-government reporters the S-400 procurement deal was "the best deal in modern times". Erdoğan also repeated his belief that Trump had given assurances that sanctions would not be applied.

Surprisingly, U.S. Defense Department did not issue a statement in response to the first instalment of S-400 parts arriving from Russia on Friday. 

Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defence for acquisition and sustainment, was scheduled to explain the status of Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 programme in a Friday press briefing, according to USNI News. But after two delays, the briefing was cancelled without explanation late in the day. On Monday, the Pentagon postponed yet another briefing on the subject. 

This has increased speculation that Trump may delay or try to waive the planned sanctions, possibly after Turkey threatened to block U.S. access to the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, a key hub for U.S. operations in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Turkey is building up forces along its border with Syria, in possible preparation for what could be a new offensive into the northeast of its war-torn neighbour where U.S. troops are stationed. There is chance that Turkey could launch an operation into Syria, even on limited scale, in response to U.S. sanctions, putting pressure on U.S. troops there and the Trump administration. 

The lead Republican congressman on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said on Sunday that Turkey's acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 missile system was "very problematic". Speaking to Fox News, Michael McCaul said Turkey “can’t have it both ways … You can’t be a NATO ally and buy Russian military equipment”.

The expectation in Washington is that Turkey will be officially suspended from the F-35 jet programme this week. Turkey has been a member of the programme since 1999. 

After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that U.S. law required sanctions against Turkey, it should be expected that Trump would follow that line, but obviously that will not be confirmed until we see the president’s signature on the order. 

Despite all the signals that Washington intends to impose sanctions, Erdoğan appears to be goading the United States to carry out those threats by reiterating at every opportunity his goal of increasing cooperation with Russia. 

Sanctions would hurt a Turkish economy that is already struggling with high inflation and unemployment, a weak lira and high corporate debt. At the same time, Erdoğan is pushing foreign investors away by sacking the governor of the central bank, undermining its independence and signalling a fall in interest rates at a time when most economists say Turkey needs to raise interest rates to rein in inflation.

Erdoğan appears to be doubling down on policies that could lead Turkey to hell. But why? Why is he imposing these costs on the population? Why is he seemingly intent on courting such calamity?

At this point, I can only speculate why Erdoğan would want to see sanctions imposed and push for a full breakdown of relations with the United States. Perhaps it is because staying friends with the West does not help his regime anymore, though surely he would not want specific sanctions that would hurt his own interests or those of his close allies.

Political scientist Burak Bilgehan Özpek told the Ahval Podcast programme on Monday that Erdoğan needs a constant state of emergency in order to hold onto power.  

Opposition parties appear to be gaining momentum, and cracks are appearing within Erdoğan’s party as renegade former allies are looking to form their own entities that could split his constituency.

Erdoğan has no hope to offer and no economic policies to heal the deep economic damage the country has endured. Erdoğan's political life as a problem solver appears to have come to an end. 

The only way for Erdoğan to survive is to convince Turkey's citizens, including Kurds and other minorities that the only options in front of them are "Tayyip or we burn the country". 

It is the same playbook used by many authoritarians throughout history. Only time will tell whether it will help Erdoğan hold onto power, but his high-stakes brinkmanship will meanwhile continue to damage Turkey’s economy, stability and security. 

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