In case anybody was wondering, Recep Tayyip Erdogan isn’t going to be getting rid of his Russian-made S-400 missile systems and he’s not inclined to swap them out for any American Patriot systems, either.
“They said they would not sell Patriots unless we get rid of the S-400s”, Ibrahim Kalin, the incorrigible Turkish autocrat’s spokesman, said Tuesday. “It is out of question for us to accept such a precondition”.
Yes, it’s “out of the question” that Erdogan would acquiesce to Washington’s demands on this thorniest of thorny issues, and why would he? After all, Trump made it clear in remarks at the Osaka G-20 that he wasn’t inclined to punish Turkey for acquiring the technology. Turkey was expelled from the F-35 program, but even that seems negotiable.
Last month, during a staged press conference following meetings in Washington, Trump talked up a new trade deal with Erdogan, despite October’s cross-border incursion in Syria, during which the Turkish army and its allied militias killed hundreds and displaced an estimated quarter of a million people, after the White House agreed to remove troops from border posts previously manned by US special operators, in collaboration with Syrian Kurds.
All in all, Trump’s policy vis-à-vis Erdogan has been the very definition of appeasement. So, naturally, Erdogan continues to push the envelope on everything from Syria to Halkbank to Fethullah Gulen.
“An irrational anti-Turkish sentiment has prevailed in the Congress and it is not good for Turkish-American relations”, Erdogan’s spokesman Kalin went on to say, in the same series of remarks. “They should know that such language of threat would push Turkey exactly toward places that they don’t want it turn to”.
By “places”, Kalin means Russia, from which Erdogan now plans to buy a second S-400 battery. In addition, the two countries are moving forward with a long-planned joint effort to develop new ballistic missiles.
Kalin is right: Congress is annoyed. US lawmakers have voted to punish Turkey for its various transgressions and recognize the Armenian genocide, but Trump has gone out of his way to avoid green-lighting CAATSA sanctions against Erdogan.
This week, The Daily Beast published a 6-page memo from the State Department laying out the administration’s position on a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Jim Risch and Bob Menendez called “Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act“.
State argues that the bill would be counterproductive. “[It] would treat Turkey as a pariah in NATO, feeding a narrative that the Russian Federation would likely seek to amplify and exploit”, State says.
Of course, it’s not Congress’s fault that Erdogan bought the S-400s. It’s Erdogan’s fault. If he’s a pariah in NATO, it’s because of his own actions.
It’s also absurd for the Trump administration to pretend to be concerned about Congress accidentally promoting Russia’s agenda. The president’s each and every foreign policy decision seems to further Russia’s interests in one way or another, and if you had to point to one piece of evidence that makes the case for the Trump-Russia collusion story, it wouldn’t be anything to do with the Mueller probe. Rather, it would be Trump’s ongoing efforts to undermine NATO and fracture America’s alliances in Europe.
Given that, there’s more than a little tragic irony in the State department’s memo to lawmakers opposing the Turkey bill.
Really, this isn’t complicated, a point Aaron Stein of the Foreign Policy Research Institute drove home in remarks to the The Daily Beast. To wit:
They are legitimate criticisms of the bill, but the bill is probably going to happen because Donald Trump won’t take the deal. The art of the deal, the master of the deal is an effing moron. The thing to do is impose CAATSA and make this go away. It’s just that simple.
The memo also opposes a provision that would require the US to oppose an IMF bailout for Turkey in the event of a financial crisis. That too is hilarious. After all, Turkey was very nearly forced into the arms of the IMF in August of 2018 due in part to sanctions imposed by Trump himself (over the Andrew Brunson issue).
Things had been moving in the wrong direction for months as Erdogan prepared for the executive presidency “vote” (which paved the way for him to exert even more control over domestic monetary policy and the economy), but the Brunson-related sanctions and Trump’s Twitter balderdash pushed the lira into panic mode.
Another part of the bill the State department doesn’t like would assist America’s Kurdish allies in fleeing to the US for safety. “The President has been clear on this Administration’s approach to refugees as reflected in the National Security Strategy of the United States”, the memo reads.
Finally, it’s worth noting that State describes proposed sanctions against Halkbank as “unnecessary because the Department of the Treasury already possesses the authority to designate Halkbank if appropriate”.
Of course, that’s the fox guarding the hen house. After all, it was reportedly Steve Mnuchin who slow-walked the administration’s response to Halkbank’s efforts to skirt US sanctions on Iran. We detailed that extensively in “Mnuchin, Barr May Have Iced Halkbank Case“.
In October, after a lengthy and inexplicable delay, the US finally charged Halkbank in the long-running, high-profile case that implicated officials at the highest levels of the Turkish government, including Erdogan. The timing was obviously not a coincidence – Trump was wielding the charges as leverage in the Syria debacle.
Erdogan has been lobbying Trump for quite a while to have the White House step in to block charges against the bank, and a letter from Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretary Frederick Vaughan (made public last month) catalogues a series of chats Mnuchin had with senior Turkish officials including a meeting during a working lunch in November when Erdogan visited Washington.
The letter was a response to an irritated inquiry from Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. Mnuchin met with Turkish officials seven times from April 22, 2017, to the November meeting, including a bilateral with Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak in July of 2018, just after Erdogan consolidated power and handed the reins of the economy to Albayrak. At the time, the US was busy sanctioning Turkey in the Brunson matter and there were rumors that Ankara was using Brunson as a pawn to extract concessions from the US on Halkbank. In October, Wyden sent a letter to Mnuchin asking if Treasury played a role in stifling or otherwise influencing the investigation into the lender.
“The Trump administration already has the authority to level sanctions against Halkbank [but] it hasn’t done so, perplexing many observers of Trump’s Iran policy”, The Daily Beast points out, summarizing an extremely convoluted backstory. “In just about every other instance, the Trump administration has taken an aggressive approach to enforcing Iran sanctions and targeting Tehran, so the administration’s reticence on Halkbank is striking”.
In any event, you can understand why Erdogan would think he has the latitude to persist in his belligerence over the Russian missile systems and over anything else, for that matter.
Although Trump did take a hardline stance on Turkey in the summer of 2018 in order to secure the release of Brunson, that apparent zeal for reining in an autocrat has been conspicuously absent in almost all other instances where confronting Erdogan would have been in the interest of America and its allies.
What else is there to say, other than: “Don’t be a fool. I’ll call you later”.
Full State Department memo on Turkey sanctions billState-Turkey