Photo illustration by John Lyman
Politics /22 Oct 2019
10.22.19

Lindsey Graham’s Birthday Gift to Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin’s birthday was October 7, but Senator Lindsey Graham knows that the right gift, even if late, is always appreciated.

In response to Turkey’s incursion into Syria to establish a “safe zone” for the return of Syrian refugees, Senator Graham and his Democrat colleague, Senator Chris Van Hollen, proposed a menu of sanctions against Turkey’s political leadership, military transactions, the energy sector, and that would impose visa restrictions on Turkish officials.

The Trump administration quickly followed suit, with President Donald Trump authorizing the Treasury Department to implement economic sanctions on Turkey, and Treasury subsequently sanctioned Turkey’s ministries of National Defence and Energy and Natural Resources, as well as the ministers of National Defence, Energy and Natural Resources, and Interior.

Now that the U.S. has crossed the Rubicon of sanctioning a NATO ally what can it expect to happen?

Smiling faces in Moscow and Beijing are what will happen.

Turkey’s economy seems to be recovering from a 2018 recession but is still weak, and Erdogan has suffered a 10 point drop in his job approval rating over the past year. The economy may continue to lag as the U.S. just imposed a 50 percent tariff on Turkish steel and halted negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal. (Turkey imported over $11 billion in goods from the U.S. in 2017.) and the European Union on Monday voted to suspend arms exports to Turkey.

With economic relations with the U.S. and EU stalled for now, and the economy still parlous, Turkey will continue its turn East in what Ilan Berman calls “Erdogan’s Chinese Gamble.” In June, China’s central bank gave Istanbul a $1 billion cash injection, and in August the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China provided a $3.6-billion loan package for Turkey’s energy and transportation sectors.

There may be an opportunity to mesh China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Turkey’s “Middle Corridor,” a plan to connect Turkey with its Turkic cousins in Central Asia and beyond via a new East-West trading route. Aside from Turkey’s large internal market and location at the border of Europe and Asia, the country hosts terminals sending natural gas from Russia, and oil from Iraq and the Caspian Sea, and limits warship access to the Black Sea which borders Ukraine and Russia. The eastern Mediterranean is also the home of large natural gas reserves that Turkey wants to explore, but the project has run into controversy with the EU over energy rights in contested waters near Cyprus.

China may offer economic support and trade opportunities without getting preachy about human rights or democracy but will expect Turkey to shut up about China’s persecuted Muslim Uyghurs. If U.S. economic relations go ahead, China has plenty of already-sanctioned entities that can trade with Turkey.

Just the same, Beijing will move slowly to avoid antagonizing the U.S. just as it is working on a trade deal with Washington, and due to its earlier unhappy experiences with strategic projects in Turkey like the Sinop nuclear power plant tender in 2013 and the unsuccessful air defense system offering in 2015.

Russia, on the other hand, will move quickly as it demonstrated when it rapidly deployed troops along the “line of contact” between the Turkish and Syrian formations and will work to mediate between Syria and Turkey (and the YPG/PKK). In terms of material support, Russia recently started deliveries of the S-400 Triumph air defense system and is in talks with Turkey about the sale of the Su-35 or Su-57 fighters.

It is difficult to see any U.S. or EU response other than more sanctions, or calling again for a cease-fire which Erdogan already rejected. The possibility of suspending or expelling Turkey from NATO has been floated but there’s nothing in the North Atlantic Treaty about how to do that, though others say its legally possible but maybe not politically prudent. The only way you leave NATO is to give one year’s notice, so the only path may be to wait out the Erdogan regime in hope that a more amenable Turk may someday be found.

The difficulty with U.S. sanctions is there’s never a defined off-ramp, so once sanctioned there’s no incentive to comply, especially if you have options like China and Russia. No rational political leader will start to comply as it will be a never-ending series of concessions until he is ousted by someone the Americans consider suitable. And there’s no evidence of sanctions working when a country is confronted with a threat to a core national interest.

We got here because in 2014 the Obama administration needed proxy fighters to confront the Islamic State forces in Syria, the Turkey-linked groups were dodgy, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) was the only group that agreed to not attack the Assad regime, which made the choice amenable to Russia and Iran. The timing was critical as the U.S. was then negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran.

The Turks protested the choice of the YPG, the Syrian branch of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but the U.S. traded the relationship with Turkey for the Iran nuclear deal. Now it has neither, though at the time it thought the Turks would shut up and come along, which the Turks interpreted as being asked to “guard the camp, but not be allowed to sit in the tent.”

Now the U.S. is accused of “betraying the Kurds” but it is really liquidating a relationship with the YPG, a client-friendly to Russia and Iran and that the U.S. intelligence community has recognized as “the Syrian militia of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).” In fact, the habit of U.S. officials to publicly admit the YPG was the Syrian branch of the PKK, but do nothing about it, likely drove the Turks to the point where they started to plan the Syria operation as they felt they couldn’t count on the U.S.

Domestic politics in the U.S. and Turkey accelerated the timetable for Turkey’s action against the Kurds.

Donald Trump campaigned that he would cease America’s participation in “endless wars” which he reiterated last week: “I campaigned on the fact that I was going to bring our soldiers home” and the public isn’t focused on foreign policy so he won’t lose many voters over Syria. Erdogan had to rebuild his stature after the summer election drubbing and in Turkey firm action against the PKK is always a winner. Trump’s desire to finally extricate the U.S. from Syria was Erdogan’s opportunity.

Soner Cagaptay highlights that the Turkish operation was impelled by broad public resentment toward the PKK and the imperative to remove the over 3.5 million Syrian refugees who are blamed for “stealing” jobs, driving up rents, and “invading” Turkey with their conservative cultural values.

And Erdogan has his finger on the pulse of the country. The 2018 “Social and Political Trends in Turkey” survey found the top concerns were rising unemployment rate and high cost of living in 2018, that Erdogan could blame on the refugees, followed by the threat from the Gülen movement, and the fight against terrorism, which could be pinned on the PKK and its proxies. The U.S. ranked as the country posing the biggest threat to Turkey according to 81.9 percent of the participants, so there is no electoral downside to pushing back against U.S. interests.

It was the work of an instant to create the message: the U.S. is allied with the PKK/YPG terrorists who caused the violence that made the Syrians come here and take your jobs.

The U.S. has one blind spot: it doesn’t understand the feeling that your borders are insecure. There’s a lot of talk in America of “insecure borders” but there’s no concern the borders will be changed, something Turkey thinks may happen to form an independent Kurdish statelet. Thus, Turks may be ready to withstand economic punishment to keep their country whole.

And the Turks may do this because, as 2015 polling found, they hold unfavorable views about other countries, generally distrust international institutions, and have a significant preference for Turkish unilateralism in international relations. Thus, Turks may feel they have to go it alone to maintain their territorial integrity and security.

Just the same, Erdogan has called for NATO help in the Syria operation, but the test for NATO will be if Turkey asks NATO to invoke Article 5 in response to a terrorist attack inside Turkey. The Al-Qaeda attack against the U.S. on 9/11 set the precedent Turkey will cite to the discomfort of the other members of the alliance. If no support is forthcoming, the NATO alliance will be neutered, and the states bordering Russia will draw the obvious conclusion and make an accommodation with Moscow.

Another group up for a reckoning is the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives followed the Senate by advocating sanctions – America’s go-to response in crises – against Turkey. Senate leader Mitch McConnell said withdrawing from Syria is a “grave mistake” and that the Senate recently “stepped up” in addressing the U.S. role in Syria. But the Senate’s steps are baby steps as long as it dodges its role in declaring wars by continually rolling over the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force then criticizing the executive branch at its convenience.

There are choices to be made: will the U.S. Senate ever insist on fulfilling is duties under the Constitution? And will NATO decide how to deal with the ruffian inside the tent or will it make Putin’s 67th birthday one he’ll always remember?

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