Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts How Will the United States Respond to Turkey’s Invasion of Syria?
How Will the United States Respond to Turkey’s Invasion of Syria?

How Will the United States Respond to Turkey’s Invasion of Syria?

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization.

In the aftermath of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria on October 4, 2019, leaders from both U.S. political parties have suggested responding with economic and financial sanctions. The threat of economic and financial sanctions to deter, coerce, or punish Turkey has been a recurring news item since President Donald Trump took office in 2017. There are pending sanctions for its purchase of Russian military equipment; the sanctions waivers that are in place for Iranian oil sales to Turkey could be withdrawn; and a long-expected fine for a Turkish bank that evaded U.S. sanctions on Iran is expected to be implemented. The most recent tendency towards sanctions on Turkey reflects the intra-governmental struggle between the U.S. executive and legislative branches for control over foreign policy as much as, if not more than, governmental responses to real international security conditions.

During the weeks prior to the Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, the October 2019 operation to seize territory held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Trump administration had been shielding Ankara from sanctions and fines that in simpler circumstances would have been levied without a second thought. The culmination of an incongruent U.S. security strategy in Syria, leading to the U.S. military’s ordered withdrawal from the northeast ahead of and during the Turkish offensive, orients the administration towards Trump’s preferred foreign policy tool as the principal way to respond to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s provocation. While threatening sanctions and tariffs may succeed in coercing Erdogan to adjust the Turkish approach in northern Syria, the overall outcome will be additional injury to the United States’ predominant global financial position and add yet another demerit to the growing list of abused economic foreign policy tools. Despite the long-term strategic implications of overusing or misusing sanctions, a more immediate and tangible impact on the United States will be the co-option of a serious foreign policy issue by continued intra-governmental competition between the executive and legislative branches.

The Invasion

After several months of publicly announcing the imminence of a Turkish invasion in northern Syria, east of the Euphrates River, Erdogan finally sent the Turkish military and partnered Syrian rebel groups into areas controlled by the SDF. Ahead of the invasion, the United States ordered the relocation of American troops stationed along the Turkey-Syria border, and, in an October 6 phone call between Presidents Trump and Erdogan, Trump allegedly gave Erdogan his consent to execute the Turkish operation. Because of the reported success of the U.S.-SDF partnership in the five-year counter ISIS operation, many commentators, including military and civilian officials, both active and retired, loudly decried the decision that they collectively consider to be “abandoning” the Kurdish groups in northern Syria. Trump’s response to this outcry was to announce threats to impose severe sanctions on Turkey if the military operation veered from his personal vision of propriety. Elected representatives from both houses of the U.S. Congress condemned the Turkish invasion, and proposals for legislatively driven sanctions are pending Congressional action.

The Proposals

Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) on October 14, 2019, that uses emergency powers to grant expansive authority to the Secretaries of State and Treasury to block property and suspended entry into the U.S. for Turkish persons and entities that “threaten the peace, security, stability, or territorial integrity of Syria; or . . . [commit] . . . serious human rights abuse.” The EO names several categories of individuals and entities eligible for the sanctions: current and former officials of the Turkish government, any subordinate organizations of the Turkish government, people and organizations in Turkish economic sectors as designated by the Secretary of Treasury, and any person or organization that is related to or assists the primary sanctions targets named in the EO. In addition to the targeted actions, Trump announced via Twitter that the United States once again will increase the tariff rate on steel imported from Turkey and will immediately cease bilateral discussions of a trade deal.

The Congressional proposals are in two forms. The House of Representatives already has a full draft that will likely be offered on the House floor upon return from recess, co-sponsored by U.S. Representatives Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX). The Senate also has a pending sanctions proposal, to be offered by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), which is in pre-draft phase with only an outline released to the public. The most significant elements are provisions in each that define the Turkish government’s purchase of S-400 air defense systems as a “significant purchase” and direct a specific timeline to implement sanctions pursuant to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) Section 231. The CAATSA provision is not logically linked to the Turkish invasion, except that implementing the sanctions possibly would impact some of the same people and entities that would be covered by the sanctions specific to the invasion. The Congressional representatives are including it in their drafts because they were unable to force the Trump administration to act on mandatory CAATSA Sec. 231 sanctions through other legislation, and they are capitalizing on this opportunity to lock in the administration to secondary action supporting the anti-Russia sanctions regime.

The Senate outline includes targeted sanctions against Erdogan and a list of Turkish ministers, while the House draft specifies more military leadership. Both versions require the executive branch to produce a report on Erdogan’s net worth. The House draft bill goes further in three areas. First, it requires reports on how the Trump administration will assist the Syrian Kurds and adapt counter-terrorism operations in the region. Second, it directs an asset block against HalkBank. Third, it requires the Turks to withdraw from all Syrian territory, not just in the northeast, but also from Afrin province as well, occupied since January 2018 due to Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch. The House’s draft bill indicates that the members and staff have learned from past experience with Trump, sanctions, and weapons sales. To circumvent possible evasion of Congress’ intent with the bill, the draft includes provisions to remove the possibility of waivers or delay for CAATSA action, and it eliminates Trump’s power to use emergency powers to circumvent Arms Export Control Act reporting requirements.

Power Struggle

Publishing the EO prior to any legislative votes on alternative sanctions packages gives Trump initiative to act under Article 2 authority even if the Congress passes additional laws regarding the situation in Syria. The competing sanctions are not purely about responding to the Turkish invasion of northern Syria; they are also about separation of Constitutional powers and, to a degree, assigning responsibility for how U.S.-Turkey relations reached this low point.

The Turkish invasion is yet another example among many in recent years that indicates path dependency towards destabilization in U.S.-Turkey bilateral relations. Blatant disregard for each other’s foreign policy preferences led to a succession of crises, beginning in summer 2018 when U.S. trade policy contributed to a currency crisis in Turkey. Autumn 2018 saw the Turkish government sweating over still-delayed sanctions evasion fines for state-owned HalkBank, followed by a hero’s welcome home for HalkBank executive Hakan Atilla following his release from U.S. prison. In summer 2019, Turkey was suspended from the F-35 consortium and then took delivery of S-400 air defense systems from Russia after more than a year of loud warnings about the damage that move would cause. Despite the obvious applicability of CAATSA Sec. 231 sanctions that should have been triggered following the S-400 delivery, Ankara has yet to feel the negative ramifications of that decision.

The U.S. executive and legislative branches have thus cooperated to produce an undeniably muddled policy towards Turkey. Ankara repeatedly crossed major thresholds in its bilateral relationship and escaped the expected punishment. The United States has worked closely with the SDF to fight the Islamic State despite years of consistent protests from the Turks. Both U.S. government branches have responsibility for the incongruent strategy towards Turkey. Not only has the executive branch allowed the Turkish government to act in contravention of U.S. policy in a number of areas without inhibition, but the Congress also supported this maneuver by allowing its initiative and oversight on those previous matters to lapse.

Now, the Turkish military has invaded northern Syria, and both the Congress and Trump want to ensure Erdogan blunts his offensive, despite repeatedly softening the blow in the past when Turkey defied American foreign policy preferences. Even worse, Erdogan has leaned on his relationship with Trump to nullify Congress’ legislative initiatives against Turkey, even when both houses and both parties were ready to cooperate on an issue like the F-35/S-400 crisis a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the structural incentives in this situation are similar to previous issues. Trump’s best outcome is to implement a strong response while retaining as much decision space as possible. The Congress is using this opportunity to redress the lingering CAATSA issue, which would take power away from the Office of the President. Neither outcome corrects U.S. strategy in the region.

Next Steps

The Turkish invasion is unlikely to be slowed or stopped significantly by the new executive sanctions. While Turkey is a large foreign military sales customer for the United States, Ankara has postured itself to provide the majority of its military needs through indigenous production. Neither does trade policy give Washington a big enough stick to influence the operation directly—annual bilateral trade volume is a mere $25 billion (as of 2017 data); Turkish banks have recovered since last year’s foreign currency shortage; and U.S. steel imports from Turkey have dipped 75% since being initially taxed.

Instead, the executive order appears to be an effort to insulate Trump from Congressional criticism, give him a pretext to veto a sanctions bill that includes a CAATSA provision if one is passed, and create a bargaining chip that the administration can use in future cease-fire and peace negotiations. A serious move to sanction Turkey for the invasion would have to involve the European Union, with which Ankara has its largest trade relationship and most foreign debt exposure. Ironically, the EU is suspending weapons sales to Turkey, which will be relatively ineffective because Europe sells Turkey relatively few weapons compared to the U.S., and Turkey has expanded its indigenous production capabilities.

The most likely outcome of this Turkey sanctions scenario resembles the anti-climactic atmosphere following the S-400 delivery. After waiting for CAATSA Sec. 231 sanctions that were never implemented, it became clear that the administration desired to avoid invoking the sanctions and needed Senate Republicans’ help to do it. Following the Senate Republicans’ meeting with Trump in the White House on July 23, 2019, bipartisan support for sanctioning Turkey evaporated with Graham defecting to support Trump’s diplomatic effort that went nowhere, and then the Congress recessed for the summer.

The reality is that after unanimous, bipartisan support for a coordinated response to the Turkish invasion Graham likely will be enlisted once again by the White House to protect Trump from a veto-proof sanctions bill that strips away the initiative for major foreign policy decisions in an election year. Rather than cooperating to form a coherent response, the executive and legislative branches are competing over who will have the power to decide how to respond. The previous sanctions issues with Turkey will continue to be unresolved despite their strategic importance, and the current executive sanctions enacted on October 14 will be trumpeted as a strong response despite providing little real leverage. The silence that follows this crisis will be even louder than the last one, and American foreign policy will be sacrificed again in the service of narrower interests.