President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday ramped up their threats to sanction Turkey, responding to growing criticism over the fallout from the country’s military offensive in northern Syria following Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from the area.
In an interview with ABC, Mnuchin said the US was “ready to go at a moment’s notice to put on sanctions.” Mnuchin said the sanctions “could be starting small, they could be maximum pressure, which would destroy the Turkish economy.”
Less than an hour later, Trump tweeted that he was working with members of Congress about “imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey.”
“Stay tuned!” the President wrote.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has been fiercely critical of Trump’s decision to allow Turkish forces to attack the Kurds in Syria, praised the President after his Sunday morning tweet. Graham said there is “strong bipartisan support” for sanctions.
These comments follow Friday’s announcement by Mnuchin that Trump was granting the Treasury Department “very significant new sanctions authorities” related to Turkey. Administration officials have not been specific about what Turkish actions would trigger the sanctions.
US withdraws troops from northern Syria
Last week, Trump withdrew US forces from an area of northern Syria, prompting Turkey to launch a military offensive against Kurdish-led forces there. The Syrian Democratic Forces who operate in the region are key US allies in the fight against ISIS, but Turkey regards them as enemies. Turkey wants to ensure that the US-allied Kurdish-led forces withdraw from these areas, and aims to resettle more than 2 million Syrian refugees there.
After the announced withdrawal of US forces, Trump threatened Turkey in a tweet on Monday, saying that if the country did anything that he considers “off limits” he would “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy, as he’s “done before.”
Facts First: Experts say Trump has grounds for saying he’s hurt Turkey’s economy before and could do it again. While the US certainly has the capability to damage Turkey’s already fragile economy, it’s unclear if the Treasury Department will take action given the vague nature of the conditions outlined by Mnuchin.
What happened before
Turkey’s currency hit a record low in August 2018 after the Trump administration imposed financial sanctions on two top Turkish officials and doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum. The financial measures were intended to pressure Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in 2016 on accusations of espionage and aiding terrorists. Brunson was released on October 12, 2018, two months after the US-imposed sanctions and increased tariffs took effect.
Bulent Aliriza, founding director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Trump administration’s actions in 2018 were related to Turkey’s economic crisis. “Trust me, there was a cause and effect,” Aliriza told CNN.
John Defterios, CNN’s emerging markets editor, clarified, saying that the US sanctions in 2018 were especially effective given the already weakened state of the Turkish economy at that time. “US sanctions imposed in the summer of 2018 had a strong impact because they hit when Turkey had a rising current account deficit so was particularly vulnerable to any further measures,” Defterios told CNN.
Asked if Trump’s latest threats on Twitter could trigger similar economic struggles for Turkey again, given that the country’s economy has not yet fully recovered from 2018’s record low currency level, Aliriza said, “Absolutely.”
Last week, the lira was the weakest it’s been in almost four months, which Aliriza said “underlines the instability of the Turkish financial system and susceptibility to geopolitical shocks,” from the Trump administration’s actions and other international developments.
What could happen now
In his ABC interview Sunday morning, Mnuchin said he would be meeting with the National Security Council later in the day to “monitor the situation.”
On Friday, Mnuchin said the US was not yet activating the sanctions authorized under Trump’s executive order, but that Treasury had the power to “shut down the Turkish economy.” Per Mnuchin, sanctions could be triggered if Turkey undermined “the continued counterterrorism activities” of the Kurdish-LED Syrian Democratic Forces or allowed “a single ISIS fighter to escape.”
According to the SDF, several ISIS fighters have already escaped from prison camps in Syria. On Saturday, the situation in northern Syria appeared to deteriorate, with reports of thousands of Kurds fleeing. US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say a prominent politician, her driver, members of Kurdish security forces and several civilians were killed by Turkish-backed militants in Syria after videos circulating online appeared to show the killings.
The Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army or FSA (also called the Syrian National Army), have denied those claims.
Trump’s decision to authorize Treasury to sanction Turkish officials comes just days after bipartisan legislation sanctioning Turkey was announced from Graham.
Graham, along with Democrat Sen. Chris Van Hollen, announced a sanctions bill on Wednesday, outlining sanctions against top Turkish political leaders as well as “any foreign person who sells or provides financial, material, or technical support” to the country’s military and energy sector. However, it’s unclear if the bill would pass in the House, and the two senators might struggle to get the supermajority necessary if Trump refuses to sign the bill in the first place.
“It’s pretty, pretty devastating,” Henri Barkey, adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN regarding Graham and Van Hollen’s proposal. Barkey, however, expressed skepticism on whether the Treasury would impose sanctions in the first place. “There’s almost an escape clause in there,” Barkey said, pointing to Mnuchin’s statement that the Treasury hopes “we don’t have to use” these sanctions.