Trump Administration Trying to Protect Erdogan From U.S. Sanctions Bill

The administration is attempting to block Senate passage of legislation over Turkey’s purchase of Russian military equipment and its attack on Kurds in Syria

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan pose for a family photo during the annual NATO heads of government summit at the Grove Hotel in Watford, Britain December 4, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan pose for a family photo during the annual NATO heads of government summit at the Grove Hotel in Watford, Britain December 4, 2019.Credit: Peter Nicholls/REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is trying to protect Turkey from new U.S. sanctions and is seeking to get the full Senate to reject a bill that would punish Turkey for its purchase of Russian military equipment and for its attack on the Kurds in Syria.

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The bill to impose sanctions on Turkey has already passed the House of Representatives and has been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The administration’s opposition to the sanctions was presented in a State Department document that the Daily Beast website made public on Monday. In the document, the administration warns that sanctions against Turkey would hurt American-Turkish relations. It also notes that Turkey is a NATO member and an economic partner of the United States.

The sanction legislation against Turkey enjoys broad bipartisan support. In the Senate, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Idaho Republican James Risch, was a lead sponsor of the bill, along with the most senior Democratic senator on the committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey. The House of Representatives supported a similar bill by a large margin, with overwhelming support from both parties.

If it becomes law, the bill would place financial sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, as part of a broader American effort to limit the acquisition by partners of the United States of Russian military equipment. It would also limit Turkey’s ability to purchase U.S. military equipment, such as the F-35 fighter plane, as long as Turkey refuses to cancel its Russian deals.

Another aspect of the bill that is opposed by the Trump administration has to do with granting special immigrant visas to Syrian Kurds who fought against the Islamic State group. The opposition to this portion of the bill is in line with Trump’s immigration policy, but it has attracted rare criticism from some of the president’s political supporters and allies. They believe the United States has been ungrateful in its treatment of the Kurds, who fought ISIS shoulder-to-shoulder with American forces.

The bill also calls for the imposition of sanctions on the Turkish bank Halkbank for its role in assisting efforts by the Iranian regime to evade sanctions. The U.S. Justice Department has accused Halkbank of illegally helping Iran gain access to billions of dollars, but the Trump administration has so far resisted calls to impose sanctions on the bank.

Another provision of the bill that would likely incur strong opposition from the Turkish government is one demanding that the U.S. intelligence community provide Congress with “a report on the estimated net worth and known sources of income of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family members, including assets, investments, other business interests, and relevant beneficial ownership information.”

Erdogan and close members of his family have allegedly been involved in several corruption scandals in Turkey. The scandals were never properly investigated because of Erdogan’s control of the Turkish legal system and his repression of independent media outlets.

Trump hosted Erdogan at the White House last month, despite growing criticism in Washington over Turkey’s military attack on Syrian Kurdish forces and Erdogan’s anti-democratic measures within Turkey.

Although the Turkish president enjoys support from Trump, who has praised the Turkish autocrat, support for Erdogan in Congress has declined over the past several years. Two recent signs of the slumping support are the sanctions bill and a resolution passed by House of Representatives recognizing the Ottoman-era genocide of the Armenian people.

Trump’s policies on Turkey and Syria have sparked rare criticism on the part of Evangelical Christians, who are usually supportive of the president and his agenda. When Trump gave Erdogan the nod in September for an invasion in Syria, Evangelical leaders and organizations issued rare denunciations over the decision.

Among the backers of the sanctions bill is Christians United for Israel, a leading Evangelical group that has supported many of Trump’s policies in the Middle East.

"We cannot sit idly by as a radical Islamist strongman, who backs terrorists like Hamas, engages in the slaughter of our stalwart allies the Kurds. Nor can we be silent as this totalitarian threatens Middle Eastern Christians,” the organization said in a statement in October.

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