U.S. Announces Sanctions On Turkish Government Over Syrian Offensive

On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on the Turkish state as a punishment for Ankara’s ongoing military operations in Northern Syria. The decision comes a week after Turkey began its military campaign against the Kurdish ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) following the U.S.’s decision to withdraw its troops from the region. The move has seen the U.S. sanction two ministries of the Turkish government, as well as three senior government officials. Moreover, in his announcement, Trump stated he was halting negotiations over a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey and would be raising steel tariffs to 50 percent. 

President Trump also talked directly on the phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where he demanded an immediate ceasefire. Sanctions have been applied to all entities and individuals which “endanger civilians or lead to the further deterioration of peace, security, and stability in northeast Syria”, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated. Trump announced that he was “fully prepared to destroy Turkey’s economy” if they were to continue their military campaign, adding that Ankara was “precipitating a humanitarian crisis and setting conditions for possible war crimes”. President Erdogan has maintained that its offensive in Syria is aimed at removing Kurdish forces from the border region in order to create a “safe zone” through which millions of Syrian refugees may be returned home. 

According to the United Nations, approximately 160,000 civilians have been displaced as a result of the Turkish offensive, with the region has also witnessed dozens of civilian and military casualties. As the recent U.S. withdrawal implicitly enabled the Turkish offensive, the U.S. has demonstrated the flippancy and carelessness with which it often handles its military operations. In this sense, the U.S.’s use of sanctions and economic hard power against Turkey seem to be superficial attempts to solve a crisis in which they inadvertently greenlit. Moreover, as Nancy Pelosi noted, such economic measures against the Turkish state fall “very short of reversing (the) humanitarian disaster”. If not for its immediate withdrawal, the US may have perhaps been able to engage in mediation processes between the Syrian government, the SDF, and Turkey, which could have laid the foundations for a peaceful transfer of power between the rival factions (in whatever form). Yet, in rejecting this option, their withdrawal has merely intensified fighting and civilian deaths. The economic pressure that has been placed on Turkey—while potentially proving successful—is largely palliative, and is further demonstrative of the U.S.’s indifference towards resolving foreign conflicts despite having played a major role in their development. 

The U.S. had previously been supporting the SDF, a predominantly Kurdish militia that now controls large swathes of north-eastern Syria. The Turkish government, however, views elements of the SDF as having ties with the banned ‘Kurdistan Workers’ Party’—a group that has waged an insurgency within Turkey for three decades. During its offensive, Turkey has acted with considerable latitude in pursuit of its political aims, evidenced by events such as the execution of a Kurdish politician on Sunday by militias. Thus, the U.S. has applied its sanctions specifically to Turkey’s defense and energy ministries, as well as to the Turkish Minister of Defence, the Interior Minister, and Energy Minister, freezing their assets in the U.S. and banning U.S.-related transactions with them. Vice President Mike Pence has warned that the U.S. will continue to escalate its sanctions regime until Turkey agrees to a ceasefire and negotiations. 

As of now it is difficult to tell exactly how effective these sanctions regimes will be, however, as international pressure mounts on Turkey, they will likely be forced to halt their offensive one way or another. This article has emphasised that this economic hard power is a palliative, secondary measure taken by the U.S. after miscalculating how forcefully Turkey would exert themselves in Syria once the U.S. had withdrawn. Moreover, such a move is indicative of the fact that the U.S. administration is unwilling to engage in peaceful mediation between the various factions—which could have potentially avoided a lot of the bloodshed which followed their withdrawal. In broader terms, as the U.S. begins to withdraw itself from the international scene without laying the foundations for adequate conflict-mediation, it is likely that we will continue to see nascent regional powers such as Turkey exert their military might at will. Such a scenario does not bode well for regional peace and security; while economic sanction regimes will do little in assuaging the conflict and casualties which will follow.