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Things to Think about When Thinking about Sanctioning Turkey

By Nicholas Danforth

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Amidst ongoing tensions with Turkey, Washington has shown a growing interest in using sanctions to increase its leverage with Ankara. Indeed, as outlined in a recent post, policymakers have a range of options available to them if they seek to impose sanctions in response to the Turkish government’s actions. In assessing these options, policymakers could also benefit from a clear focus on the goals they seek to achieve. This post details four potentially overlapping objectives for U.S. sanctions against Turkey, as well as the potential trade-offs and complications they involve.

Drawing red-lines in defense of key U.S. interests: In Washington, the most significant motive for threatening sanctions remains the defense of U.S. interests that have been threatened by Ankara’s provocative behavior. Preventing a Turkish attack on territories in Syria where U.S. Special Forces are currently located and securing the release of State Department employees and U.S. citizens jailed by the Turkish government stand out as the two most pressing interests to date. Russia’s use of sanctions to compel an apology after Turkey shot down a Russian plane, and, more recently, Germany’s apparent willingness to suspend military sales to secure the release of an imprisoned citizen stand out as examples where this approach seems to have worked. At the same time, these examples also suggest the challenges Washington faces. Unlike Russia, Turkey’s longtime rival, the United States continues to benefit from its uneasy status as Turkey’s ally, using military facilities on Turkish territory that Ankara could close if both sides decided to play hardball. At the very least preparing for this should be a prerequisite for any sanctions policy. Germany’s experience, by contrast, shows the complications that can come when pressure succeeds. Having secured the release of a German citizen by leveraging military sales, Berlin now faces accusations of engaging in a “dirty deal” and rewarding Erdogan’s bad behavior if it allows future military sales to go through.

Amidst ongoing tensions with Turkey, Washington has shown a growing interest in using sanctions to increase its leverage with Ankara. 

Saving Turkish democracy: With Erdogan facing presidential elections in 2019, if not earlier, some Turkish and foreign writers have suggested that U.S. sanctions could help weaken Erdogan and his regime to the point where he might lose, thereby facilitating a revival of Turkey’s seemingly crippled democratic system. Specifically, some writers have emphasized the extent to which Erdogan’s electoral success has benefited from Turkey’s economic growth, implying that sanctions which weakened Turkey’s economy could undermine Erdogan’s popularity. While some have worried that such measures would only play into Erdogan’s conspiratorial rhetoric, helping him blame the United States for economic problems Turkey faced, others have argued that, if Erdogan is already blaming the United States for his problems, Washington might as well create some new ones for him. Of course, this strategy contains its own optimistic assumptions. If Erdogan was willing and able to rig the 2019 election, for example, economic pressure might help strip his veneer of legitimacy but not his power. Similarly, if Erdogan were prepared to violently crush widespread protests with his formal or informal security forces, an economic crisis might bring instability rather than democracy.

Showing solidarity with Erdogan’s opponents: If saving Turkish democracy is no longer possible, supporting the 50 percent of Turkey that remains opposed to Erdogan’s role could still serve U.S. goals and values in the long term. Rather than broad brush steps aimed at hurting the Turkish economy, or steps like the recent visa ban that fell particularly heavily on Turks with ties to the West, this would call for measures like Magnitsky sanctions specifically targeting Erdogan’s regime. As Germany’s experience suggests however, there can be serious contradictions between trying to maintain credibility with Erdogan’s opponents and trying to push Erdogan toward a more cooperative relationship. At least, that is, if Erdogan decides to cooperate.

Setting an example: Finally, even for policymakers prepared to write off the U.S.-Turkish alliance or Turkish democracy, making an “example” of Turkey could still advance U.S. interests or values by showing other countries the cost turning away from the West or democracy. Assuming Erdogan is willing to accept a significantly poorer and more isolated Turkey as the price of staying in power, sanctions would serve to ensure that this is a choice he, and by implication other rulers, has to make. This, ideally, would help foster a global norm whereby certain actions, whether it be hostage taking or brutalizing citizens, relegate a government to the status of rogue regime. Here too, though, policymakers would not only have to decide whether their goal was a cooperative Turkey or a democratic one, but also face the risk that a poor, isolated pariah state could prove to be a dangerously unstable one as well.

If Erdogan and his allies continue to threaten U.S. soldiers, imprison U.S. citizens or attack protestors on U.S. soil, the mounting anger these provocations generate will almost certainly result in some form of sanctions. Rather than simply act out of a desire to punish Erdogan, U.S. policymakers would do well to channel this anger toward concrete, consistent and achievable goals.

KEYWORDS: DEPARTMENT OF STATE, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY