Fighting Fire with Finance; The Trump administration’s threats to Turkey and the Role of Sanctions

Ever since the Trump administration’s somewhat ill-calculated decision to withdraw troops from Northern Syria in order to make way for a ‘long-planned’ Turkish operation in the region, there has been bi-partisan critique condemning the abandonment of US-allied majority-Kurdish fighters. In the President’s signature style of address, he tweeted ‘As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).’ The full tweet simply echoes this sentiment, concluding on the intellectual note of ‘THE USA IS GREAT!’. 

The harder rhetorical shift that Trump brings ostensibly shows clear differences in action between administrations. Realistically, the use of sanctions is commonplace in the international arena. The earliest recorded  use of sanctions was over 2,000 years ago in 432 B.C., when Athens imposed harsh restrictions on Megara. As much as he might like to claim, President Trump is doing nothing unprecedented in using them. Generally speaking, sanctions are somewhat coercive means of influence, depending on their severity. This was true under the Obama administration, who largely kept major sanction programmes limited and targeted, according to a former senior sanctions official at the State Department, Peter E. Harrell.

Trump has, by contrast, sought to utilise sanctions for more aggressive purposes, maintaining the same goals of coercive influence but fusing them with dogmatic and fierce rhetoric. In just his first year in office, President Trump increased the number of people and entities under sanction by nearly 1,000; a ‘30% jump over the final year of  President Barack Obama’s administration’. With such obstinate and inflammatory rhetoric, aggressive use of sanctions is a logical means of status-assertion for the US, should it wish to retain its nigh-on hegemonic position in the global order. Sanctions can be deployed swiftly and bloodlessly, do not risk American lives, and most critically can be either extremely subtle or blatant means of coercion.

Returning to the issue of Turkish operations in Northern Syria, following a successful negotiation of a temporary Turkish ceasefire in the area with majority-Kurdish militants in the Syrian Democratic Forces, Trump faced widespread Congressional criticism for the measure. While stating the sanctions would be lifted if Turkey complied with the ceasefire – or worsened if they didn’t – many in Congress still believed that sanctions would not and could not possibly compensate for the lack of an American military presence in the region to aid US-allied SDF fighters. Turkey views the majority-Kurdish militants as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has ‘fought a more than three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state’. In addition, shortly after the ceasefire was agreed between Turkey and the SDF, Turkey announced a deal with Russia that both states would patrol the region to create a ‘safe-zone’, which naturally many members of Congress saw as a clear and direct threat to push out SDF forces. The deal would stipulate that both states would conduct joint patrols throughout Northern Syria, consolidating influence in the region.

Because of this, on Tuesday (29/10/19) the House of Representatives passed a bi-partisan bill 403-16 to threaten Turkey, Turkish senior officials and financial institutions with sanctions over their conduct in the region. In a Congress plagued by division and growing partisanship, the concerted bipartisan effort against Trump’s decisions shows that Congress still seeks to retain some control over Middle East Policy, with the Senate also considering introducing a similar bill.

The ongoing fiasco surrounding the decision to withdraw troops from Northern Syria shows the obstinate and subtle natures of sanctions. The events that unfolded have shown a President using sanctions (or the threat of) as a knee-jerk counterstrike to a development that contradicted US interests, only to then rescind them once the picture ostensibly changed. But also, they showed a defiant Congress attempting to squeeze both themselves into Middle East policy and Turkey into a more compliant position. Sanctions have long been utilised as effective means of international coercion, and given their easiness to put in motion for the US, it is very unlikely we will see the end of sanctions anytime soon.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not represent the views of The St Andrews Economist

(Image Source: Haaretz (Originally Presidential Press Source via AP))

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