In a rare example of arrogance, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on October 11 that the U.S. “can shut down the Turkish economy” if it “needed to”. He used this populist expression after announcing that U.S. President Donald Trump has authorized the Administration to “punish” Turkish individuals and entities if the “Kurdish allies” of U.S. partners against ISIS in Syria were “slaughtered” during the Turkish military campaign into Syria launched on October 9.
Mnuchin was generous enough to say that he “hoped” the U.S. “doesn’t have to use” those “powerful sanctions”. He was possibly hinting at a bipartisan request by senators Lindsey Graham (R) and Chris Van Hollen (D) who asked for sanctions against top Turkish government officials including President Tayyip Erdoğan if Turkish troops were not immediately pulled out.
Trump said on October 13 that he would collaborate on the issue with the Congress, but would stay out of Turkey’s fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and affiliates in Syria.
Turkey seems unimpressed
That seems not to be working. Erdoğan’s top Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser İbrahim Kalın said via his Twitter account on October 12 that the campaign coded as “Peace Spring” would proceed as planned. On the same day, Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and top brass inspected the operation headquarters near the Syrian border where he ruled out targeting American positions in Syria. Soon after, the Ministry said that the troops took control of the Syrian border town of Rasulayn from the forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) -the Syrian affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In a New York Times article published on October 12, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu wrote that the campaign was against the PKK, not the Kurds. It is no secret: Turkey has a Kurdish problem. It also has a problem with the PKK whose actions cost nearly 50 thousand lives in its armed campaign against Turkey since 1984. But the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) is the third biggest party in the Turkish parliament and Erdoğan recently highlighted that 50 of the 291 MPs in his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) list were Kurds.
Do the sanctions work?
But those are only a part of the debate. Another pressing issue is the American belief that their sanctions would work and that they can force all other nations to change their political decisions; no, they don’t work. They did not work against Mexico, they did not work against Iran, they did not work against Russia, and it is unlikely these sanctions would work against Turkey, their NATO ally.
A brief recall of Turkish history shows whenever Turkey was put under pressure, perhaps except the times of the military coups in Turkey, the government did not paddle back. It was the case in the Turkish intervention in Cyprus in 1974. When the U.S. imposed sanctions and arms embargo against Turkey in 1975, the retort was closing Turkish bases to American use, including the strategic Incirlik base; it lasted three years. Now Turkey is hosting another strategic U-S. asset: the early warning radar site –one of five in the world – of the Missile Shield projects.
Aside from the U.S., European sanctions are also unlikely to change Turkish political decisions. Turkey’s NATO allies, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Norway, announced a hold on arms sales to Turkey due to its Syria campaign. Erdoğan, on the other hand, threatens them with letting the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey flood the European Union. The EU countries are not only afraid of a refugee flood, but also the possibility of the return of their ISIS member citizens if they are freed by the YPG/PKK in Syria and the possibility of the PKK actions in EU countries in which they have found ground to get organized in the past few decades.
Is it in the American interest?
That brings us to another question: is it in the American interest to “shut down” Turkish economy?
It is true that in 2018, during the crisis regarding the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, Trump hit a blow to the Turkish Lira, which lost its value by a third against the U.S. dollar. It is also true that the U.S. is the largest economic power in the world but no longer the only dominant one as it becomes clear in the trade wars with China and the EU.
Isn’t it, however, contradictory of President Trump to shut down Turkish economy which he wanted to boost its trade with the U.S. from $20 billion to $100 billion? Hadn’t he sent his Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross for almost a week to Turkey for that purpose only a month ago, in September?
If Turkey is restricted from its trade with the U.S. and the EU, are there no alternatives? Four of the five largest banks in the world are Chinese and the other one is Japanese when Russia –also under U.S. sanctions – are looking forward to having new industrial partners.
Is it in American interests to cross out a military ally of key geographic importance, with a domestic market of 82 million population and opt for a branch of a militant organization which has been designated as terrorist by the U.S. government decades ago?
Or is the Mnuchin statement was only a manoeuvre by Trump Administration to take the excessive pressure of the Congress at the expense of humiliating and infuriating Turkey?