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Sanctions on Turkey go front and center as Congress returns

Trump’s proposed sanctions appear to buy some breathing room with GOP critics

Turkish troops drive their armored vehicles into Syria on Monday. (Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish troops drive their armored vehicles into Syria on Monday. (Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images)

Bipartisan, bicameral sanctions against Turkey over its incursion into northern Syria against longtime Kurdish allies of the U.S. are high on the agenda as lawmakers return from recess Tuesday, even as President Donald Trump appeared to try to undercut the emerging unity on the issue.

While the sanctions and trade actions declared by the president Monday fall short of what lawmakers had been proposing, they do appear, at least initially, to have bought him breathing room with some top Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has been leading the sanctions charge in the Senate.

[White House warns Turkey it might ‘shut down’ its economy over Kurdish strikes]

While it remains uncertain what will come of earlier bipartisan support for congressional sanctions, there still seems to be strong support for a bicameral joint resolution that would seek to reverse Trump’s order for U.S. Special Forces to withdraw from northern Syria, where they have been helping Syrian Kurds guard prisons and camps that contain Islamic State fighters and their supporters.

Trump appeared to double down on that decision Monday, though he said a “small footprint” of U.S. forces would stay in southern Syria to continue the fight against ISIS.

The House may take the lead in passing sanctions legislation from Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York and ranking Republican Michael McCaul of Texas. Their bill, backed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would order strong sanctions on Turkey’s military as punishment for its attacks on Kurds.

Pelosi in a Monday night statement said the Trump administration’s package of sanctions against Turkey “falls very short of reversing” the humanitarian disaster in northern Syria.

The Senate’s bipartisan framework proposal for sanctioning Turkey, from Graham and Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, still lacks actual text. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not promised a floor vote on it, either.

Pelosi tweeted Monday that she had spoken with Graham, who has broken with Trump on the withdrawal from Syria. Pelosi said their “first order of business was to agree that we must have a bipartisan, bicameral joint resolution to overturn the President’s dangerous decision in Syria immediately.”

However, after meeting with Trump at the White House on Monday, Graham said in a statement that he supported the administration’s plan for resolving the crisis and that the president’s team should be given “reasonable time and space to achieve our mutual goals.”

Part of the administration’s plan involves dispatching Vice President Mike Pence to Ankara this week to try to reach a ceasefire.

Speaking to reporters in New York City on Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer announced he and Pelosi would offer “a joint resolution that urges the president to undo his decision, to do everything he can to protect the Kurds, to do everything that we must do to prevent ISIS terrorists from escaping.”

Critical to the chances of final passage of the joint resolution as well as any sanctions measure will be whether McConnell is supportive. Shortly before Trump made his own sanctions announcement Monday, McConnell released a statement that did not offer support for any joint resolution or sanctions measure under discussion. He did, however, criticize as lackluster the Trump administration’s response to Turkey’s incursion against the Syrian Kurds, which began Oct. 9.

“I am gravely concerned by recent events in Syria and by our nation’s apparent response thus far,” McConnell said, noting that he co-sponsored a measure at the beginning of the year that warned against the “precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. military forces in Syria and passed with supermajority support. “I look forward to discussing what the United States can do to avoid a strategic calamity with my Senate colleagues and with senior administration officials when the Senate returns to Washington this week.”

Competing sanctions proposals

Three different proposals for sanctioning Turkey are circulating. Two of them — the Engel-McCaul and Graham-Van Hollen proposals — appear to have considerable overlap.

The real competition appears to be between what Trump has proposed and what might come out of bicameral negotiations in Congress. The administration generally favors a sanctions approach that punishes individuals, while lawmakers want to go further by sanctioning the Turkish military and the Turkish banks that support it.

The White House on Monday announced several punitive actions against Turkey, including cancellation of trade talks, as well as a return to 50 percent steel tariffs. The duty had been lowered to 25 percent in May, but Turkey’s steel exports to the United States were down 76 percent in 2019 compared to 2018, according to trade data.

Trump said he would “soon” sign an executive order that would authorize, but not mandate, the sanctioning of current and former Turkish government officials “contributing to Turkey’s destabilizing actions in northeast Syria.”

He already has considerable powers, granted to the presidency over the years by Congress, such as through the Global Magnitsky Act, to sanction human rights offenders and war criminals. But the White House suggested the forthcoming executive order was necessary to actually implement those powers in Turkey’s case.

Monday evening, the Treasury Department announced sanctions on three of Turkey’s government departments, including the defense, energy and interior ministries. Additionally, asset freezes were imposed on the ministry chiefs.

Trump threatened to do more if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not ensure the safety of civilians and the continued detention of ISIS fighters and their supporters.

“The United States will aggressively use economic sanctions to target those who enable, facilitate, and finance these heinous acts in Syria,” Trump said. “I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path.”

The sanction measures outlined by the White House on Monday fall short of what lawmakers have been pushing.

“For God’s sake, what are they waiting for, right? People are being killed right now. Our Syrian Kurdish allies are being killed right now,” Van Hollen said in an appearance on Fox News Sunday. “That’s why it’s important that the Congress move forward on this front. I don’t know what this administration’s waiting for.”

The Graham-Van Hollen proposal would mandate asset freezes be placed on Erdoğan and much of his cabinet; sanction any foreign individuals who provide financial or material services to the Turkish military and Turkey’s energy sector as it benefits Turkey’s armed forces; forbid the export of U.S. weapons to the Turkish military; and specifically classify Ankara’s recent purchase of a Russian antimissile system as illegal.

Notably, the Engel-McCaul legislation would not specifically sanction Erdoğan but it would sanction his defense minister and other top members of the Turkish military. The bill would also prohibit arms exports to Turkey and sanction any foreign individual who sells weapons to the Turkish military. It would order the sanctioning of the Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank and any other financial institution that has conducted transactions in support of Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria. And it would classify the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system as illegal.

Mark Bocchetti contributed to this report.

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