Washington’s knives are out for Turkey. No matter the White House’s role in triggering the imbroglio, the ongoing Turkish military intervention into northeastern Syria has sparked an angry backlash in the nation’s capital that won’t soon fizzle out.
On Monday, recognizing the discontent among lawmakers, President Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey’s defense and energy ministries, as well as some high-profile Turkish officials. But those punitive measures didn’t suffice. Members of the House and Senate will weigh parallel bills, possibly as early as Wednesday, that would in addition target the American assets of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and suspend U.S. military support for a NATO ally.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is leading the congressional sanctions effort alongside Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), described Trump’s initial moves, which included higher steel tariffs, as a “pathetic response” to Turkey’s invasion. “Steel exports to the U.S. are only 4 tenths of 1% of Turkey’s exports,” tweeted Van Hollen. “And while Trump ‘talks’ about sanctions on Turkish officials, he still plans to meet Erdogan next month. Congress must stay the course and enact tough sanctions that impact Turkish conduct.”
As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius observed, Trump’s initial acquiescence to Erdogan and his decision to fully withdraw U.S. forces from northeastern Syria — where they were helping protect a de facto autonomous Syrian Kurdish state — has infuriated myriad U.S. officials in the military, diplomatic and intelligence communities, all of whom are aware of the thousands of Kurdish lives lost in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State.
“It’s a dagger to the heart to walk away from people who shed blood for us,” one former top CIA official told Ignatius. “It will go down in infamy,” said an Army officer who served in the Syria campaign. “This will go down as a stain on the American reputation for decades.”
This sense of outrage is not only felt in Washington. The Canadian Foreign Ministry announced that it was at least temporarily suspending new weapons sales to Turkey on Tuesday, warning in a statement that Ankara’s “unilateral action risks undermining the stability of an already fragile region, exacerbating the humanitarian situation and rolling back progress” achieved by the anti-ISIS coalition.
Some European powers have already done the same. On Monday, European Union member states collectively pledged to suspend arms exports to Turkey — though they stopped short of implementing a formal bloc-wide embargo. But various countries, including Germany, France, Finland and Sweden, had enacted embargoes of their own by the weekend. Britain followed suit on Tuesday.
“This is not the action we expected from an ally,” said British foreign secretary Dominic Raab, referring to Turkey. “It is reckless. It is counterproductive and plays straight into the hands of Russia, and indeed the Assad regime.”
Erdogan is not a popular figure in the West, where many governments view his increasingly autocratic rule to be corroding Turkish democracy. But the speed with which other governments came crashing down on Ankara struck others as somewhat curious.
“Western powers unleashed a wave of sanctions against Turkey over its Syria incursion,” tweeted Ragip Soylu, Turkey correspondent for the Middle East Eye. “NONE of them wanted to [do] the same when Saudi Arabia massacred thousands in Yemen, murdered [journalist Jamal] Khashoggi.”
The juxtaposition is worth considering. For years, Saudi Arabia has led a ruinous campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Airstrikes on critical infrastructure and a maritime blockade contributed to the collapse of Yemen’s already impoverished economy. The bleak conditions led to one of the world’s worst cholera epidemics while possibly more than half of the country remains in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Moreover, U.N. investigators suggested in September that the Saudis — and perhaps the Americans, British and French allies who armed them — could be guilty of potential war crimes over the course of the conflict.
Yet none of the mounting anger over the multiyear war in Yemen that has been voiced by Western civil society and various lawmakers has translated into the same sweeping political action that a few days of Turkish incursions provoked this week.
There may be understandable reasons for this double standard. Turkey is a NATO member and a nominally democratic nation that’s still seen in a different light than an opaque gulf monarchy. The besieged Syrian Kurdish faction that Turkey views as a “terrorist” group played a vital role in securing Western strategic interests in Syria — unlike the Iran-linked Houthis. And the Saudis remain big customers: In 2017 alone, E.U. countries granted licenses to export arms to Saudi Arabia worth close to $19 billion.
For all the Western antipathy toward Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Turkish president still seems to loom as a larger boogeyman. In Europe, Erdogan is widely seen as the dangerous demagogue next door. In the United States, he has become an adversary in allied clothing.
“Obsession with Erdogan has always distorted Turkey policy in Washington,” Soner Cagaptay, author of “Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East,” told Today’s WorldView.
In the early years of his reign, Erdogan was the toast of Western capitals, hailed as an epoch-redefining liberal who was shaking up the Turkish state still dominated by an overweening military and an asphyxiating civil bureaucracy. “Because people so firmly believed that he was going to make Turkey democratic, they overlooked his democratic transgressions,” Cagaptay said, pointing to earlier purges Erdogan’s government carried out against political opponents.
Now, though, Erdogan is reviled, especially by the American foreign policy establishment. And so Washington “distorts Turkey’s policy in the other direction,” said Cagaptay, seeing only the mustachioed would-be autocrat in Ankara, while ignoring widespread concerns, shared by many of Erdogan’s domestic opponents, over the dangers of a Syrian Kurdish statelet emerging on the Turkish border.
Turkey’s incursions have now made its fraught relationship with the United States the focus of conversation in Washington. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly headed to Ankara for crunch talks over a possible cease-fire and way forward.
In an op-ed published this week in the Wall Street Journal, Erdogan sniped at his critics both in the West and the Arab world, arguing that he was cleaning up a mess that others had a hand in making. “The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” wrote Erdogan, insisting that his government’s new campaign would “restore peace and stability.”
A legion of critics would disagree, pointing to reports of new atrocities, the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, and fears of the resurgence of the Islamic State. But in a part of the world where regional powers pay little price for causing such havoc, Erdogan’s gambit may end up being once more par for the course.
My colleague Dan Lamothe talked to more U.S. army officers dismayed by Trump’s decision. “It feels like we’re abandoning our closest ally in the fight against ISIS, and we’re abandoning them to a fate that is going to end very poorly for them,” said Marty Palmer, who left active duty last year as part of an Army Special Forces team deployed in Syria. To “completely abandon” a force that has “given thousands of lives for this conflict is really tough to watch