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U.S. and Europe Sanction Turkey: Will it Backfire?


Among recent presidential acts, the outgoing Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Turkey in response to its purchase of a Russian air defense system with S-400 missiles, more than a year ago. Interestingly, President Trump was not eager to sanction Turkey, however, Congress has forced his hand to do so.


While Turkey’s $2.5 billion purchase of the Russian system surprised Washington and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, Washington reacted quickly following this purchase. In doing so, the U.S. removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter pilot training program. U.S. and NATO concerns, made clear to Turkey, were that the Russian S-400 would jeopardize the F-35 by using its radar to scan the jet passively. This would allow the Russian system to easily identify and neutralize the aircraft in any combat.


What to make of this when it comes to international relations between Russia and the United States? Yes, Turkey was a founding member of NATO and has been a partner for six decades. Yet many geopolitical analysts now ask: Does Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s surface-to-air missiles send a message to NATO that Turkey will oppose NATO policies when it comes to Ankara’s interests? The answer is evident.


One other thing: It became evident to Turkey a few years ago that neither the U.S. nor influential NATO members (Germany, France and Britain) take Ankara’s security concerns and economic interests seriously. As a result, Turkey has decided to go it alone, while engaging Russia militarily, China, and Iran economically.


The U.S. sanctions on Turkey comprise an array of actions such as blocking exports, barring selected officials from making U.S. transactions, or stopping U.S. banks and international financial institutions from making loans. These are all serious actions, and anyone could cause significant damage to Turkey’s already sluggish and weak economy. Furthermore, sanctions in the financial sector could potentially send financial tremors throughout Europe. The provision in the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual authorization bill that would force the administration to impose sanctions has already caused the Turkish lira to devaluate.


Turkey’s recent test of the Russian S-400 system drew condemnation from the Pentagon and appears to be the Trump administration’s final justification for applying sanctions. However, Trump has long refused to implement the congressionally mandated sanctions on Turkey for its Russian weapons purchases until Turkey’s brazen behavior made it impossible to ignore. “It’s really hard to put those S-400s away,” said Aaron Stein, the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “As soon as those things showed up in Ankara, it’s like f_ _ _, we’ve got a big problem here.”


Undoubtedly, Russia and Turkey continue to enjoy a rapprochement following Turkey’s shooting down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M attack aircraft in Syria in November 2015. Turkish-Russian relations, however, have recently cooled, as Moscow and Ankara found themselves on opposite sides of proxy conflicts in Libya, Syria, and more recently, the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the South Caucasus.

The question before us is, what will the next U.S. administration do come January 20, 2021 when Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the U.S.? Will Biden impose further sanctions? I think not! The reason is that Biden will want to start his presidency on a clean slate when it comes to dealing with Turkey. He will most likely focus on a strategy and or policy to move forward rather than making things worse.


Oddly, Europe plans to sanction Turkey as well but for a different issue. The sanctions are in response to Turkey's activities of prospecting for gas in Greek and Cypriot waters. Interestingly, the European Union (EU) leaders did not agree to either seek an arms embargo or target an entire sector of Turkey's economy. This comes on the heels of Turkey’s ongoing unilateral and provocative activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, including in Cyprus's exclusive economic zone.

Against this backdrop, there is a need to assess whether further sanctions on Turkey could backfire. The possibility is there given Turkey’s strategic location, in addition to being a NATO member.


What we should not ignore is that Turkey’s purchase of Russian weapons has two outcomes. First, Turkey will emerge politically stronger, allowing it to influence the regional political landscape to its favor. Second, noting Turkey’s purchase, other countries in this volatile region and beyond will be eager to acquire similar technology from Russia; i.e. Iran will soon acquire Russian advanced S-400 missiles and SU-35 jets.


Turkey’s policies are contrary to what Washington expects of an ally. The U.S. therefore must evaluate where it stands. Turkey is convinced it no longer needs to pursue a policy that fulfills Washington’s expectations but, rather, can forge one allowing it greater influence on its own terms. Turkey’s new direction reflects the will of its Muslim majority while being attentive to the geopolitical shift in the Middle East away from the West.


David Oualaalou is a Geopolitical Consultant, Award Winning Educator, Veteran, and Author. He was an International Security Analyst in Washington D.C.