“Erdoğan is betting on that once again: that Trump will prevent devastating sanctions against Turkey’s economy and military following the incursion,” said Cagaptay.
Read: The U.S. moves out, and Turkey moves in
For the moment, that bet appears to be paying off. Amid a furious push in Congress to punish Turkey economically, Trump on Monday authorized sanctions against those associated with “Turkey’s destabilizing actions in northeast Syria,” while also hiking steel tariffs against the country and suspending trade negotiations between Washington and Ankara.
Thus far, however, the sanctions extend to only three Turkish officials and the nation’s defense and energy ministries. The tariffs are likely to have a muted impact because Turkish steel exports to the United States have already plummeted as a result of previous U.S. duties, and a U.S.-Turkey trade deal was nowhere close to being finalized. Fellow members of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, who are now watching in horror as gains against the terrorist group are reversed, have arguably adopted tougher measures in response to the Turkish incursion than the United States has. France and Germany, for instance, have prohibited arms exports to Turkey. Republican and Democratic lawmakers are pledging their own reprisal, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling for a bipartisan resolution to overturn Trump’s Syria decision and stronger sanctions than the White House’s.
The Trump administration’s sanctions are “quite lenient and light,” Cagaptay noted, and seem like an effort to “take some steam off” congressional efforts to penalize Turkey.
Expecting such a result, Erdoğan may have calculated that the upside of a military operation in Syria against Kurdish forces, whom the Turkish government considers terrorists linked to the country’s own Kurdish insurgency, outweighed the downside.
If U.S. sanctions turn out to be mostly symbolic, “that would be a relatively minor economic or diplomatic cost worth bearing for Turkey to advance its military objectives in the region,” Elizabeth Rosenberg, who worked on sanctions policy in the Obama administration and is now at the Center for a New American Security, told me by email.
Read: Trump’s gift to ISIS
The rollout of the Turkey sanctions has also been beset by confusion over their objective, a flaw that has plagued U.S. sanctions efforts against Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela as well. Trump is now attempting to halt a military operation he implicitly green-lighted just days ago by acquiescing to Erdoğan’s plans and withdrawing U.S. troops from the battle zone, as he simultaneously invites Erdoğan to the White House and threatens to destroy his economy.
Trump-administration officials, moreover, state that the goal of the sanctions is to prevent Turkey from indiscriminately slaughtering civilians, wiping out ethnic groups, and forcibly resettling Syrian refugees, while compelling the Turks to negotiate a cease-fire and then a resolution of their conflict with the Kurds. But to extinguish a military conflagration unfolding in real time, the administration is resorting to measures that notoriously take a lot of time to come to fruition. The U.S. financial system is powerful, but not so powerful that it can swiftly stop a military assault in its tracks. It took years for international sanctions to help pressure Iran into agreeing to restrictions on its nuclear program during Barack Obama’s administration. In fact, Trump-administration officials today continue to counsel patience for sanctions implemented in 2017 and 2018 to work their magic on Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.