Can sanctions curb Turkey's assault on Syria?

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What’s happening:

On Monday, President Trump announced economic sanctions against Turkey aimed at reining in the Turkish assault on parts of northeastern Syria recently vacated by U.S. troops.

Turkish forces advanced into the territory last week after Trump announced that American soldiers would not stand in the way — a decision criticized as abandoning Kurdish forces, who have been a key ally in the fight against ISIS.

Since the assault began, reports of execution-style killings, civilian deaths and possible war crimes have emerged from within Syria. Hundreds of ISIS supporters have reportedly escaped from camp in the area. In a statement announcing the sanctions, the U.S. accused Turkey of “endangering civilians and threatening peace, security and stability in the region.”

As part of the sanctions, the U.S. will halt negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal and raise existing steel tariffs to 50 percent. The order also places direct sanctions on three Turkish officials and two government departments. The European Union has also agreed to suspend weapons exports to Turkey.

Why there’s debate:

Although Trump last week threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if its forces did anything he deemed to be “off limits,” the new sanctions have been criticized as far too small to influence Turkish decision making. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly said he was not worried about the impact of the sanctions.

Others argue that no level of economic retaliation could reverse the damage that’s already been done.

There is some optimism that economic pressure could curb Turkey’s behavior. In 2018 the value of the Turkish lira crashed, pushing the country into a recession it’s still recovering from. A new blow to Turkey’s economy could spell political trouble for Erdogan. Even if sanctions don’t stop Turkey’s assault entirely, some argue, the pressure could tamp down some of the more egregious offenses reportedly taking place.

What’s next:

Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to Turkey on Thursday in hopes of negotiating a ceasefire. Erdogan met with the American delegation, but there was no immediate announcement of any deal reached.

Bills proposing harsher sanctions on Turkey are in the works in both houses of the U.S. Congress.


Sanctions won’t work

Sanctions will take too long to have an effect

“The sound of Turkish artillery is far louder than any tweet that President Trump can set off.

Will it have an impact? Look, the truth is that economic penalties take months to have an impact, and we are talking about a situation in Syria that is changing by the hour and certainly by the day.” — Keir Simmons, MSNBC

It’s too late to stop Turkey’s assault

“...the actions were, in the minds of many American diplomats, a week late: The time to threaten sanctions was when Mr. Trump spoke with Mr. Erdogan by phone on Oct. 6, just before the invasion, in an effort to dissuade him from proceeding with the attack on Kurdish forces allied with the United States.” — Alan Rappeport and Michael Crowley, New York Times

The penalties aren’t strong enough

“The sanctions the U.S. announced against Turkey this week over its offensive in Syria fall well short of doing serious damage to an economy still healing from a recession and currency collapse.” — David McHugh, Associated Press

These sanctions are merely about the appearance of being tough

“Trump’s ‘sanctions package’ against Turkey regarding the latter’s Syria offensive isn’t surprising. POTUS wasn’t really going to sanction Turkey for a move for which he had green lighted Erdogan in the first place.” — Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay

Trump’s haphazard decision making undermines the power of the sanctions

“By now it’s not unreasonable to conclude that Mr. Trump’s foreign policy can be distilled into two tactics — sanctions and tariffs. Mr. Trump wields them willy-nilly against friend and foe alike as substitutes for diplomacy and the credible threat of military force.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Sanctions could work

Economic punishment could hurt Erdogan politically

“If new steel and other sanctions imposed by Trump intensify entrenched economic problems, causing more hardship, price rises and job losses, and if Turkish army troops begin dying in large numbers in a Syrian quagmire, this modern-day sultan could be in terminal trouble.” — Simon Tisdall, the Guardian

Turkey’s economy is vulnerable to even limited sanctions

“...Turkey could ill afford new US sanctions right now. Its currency has plummeted nearly 40% over the past two years. And in 2018 the Turkish economy saw a deep recession from which it’s only just beginning to recover.” — Uwe Hessler, Deutsche Welle

The sanctions could scare off foreign investors that Turkey desperately needs

“I think that indirectly the US could certainly do quite a bit of damage to the Turkish economy. ... [Sanctions] would raise Turkey’s risk profile and the cost of capital and that’s going to be the main challenge for Turkey going forward if we end up with that scenario.” — Turkish economy expert Sinan Ulgen to Al Jazeera

The U.S. had to respond in some way — sanctions are the only feasible option

“Sanctions can be a good alternative to futile diplomacy and violent conflict: They can impose a penalty for bad behavior, quickly and with relatively little cost to the U.S. But, as with war and diplomacy, they should be employed with care and forethought.” — Editorial, Bloomberg

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Baderkhan Ahmad/AP