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Opinion | David L. Phillips

If Trump won’t sanction Turkey, Congress must

President Trump announced that the U.S. would lift sanctions imposed on Turkey in response to its invasion of northern Syria. Mark Wilson / Getty ImagesMark Wilson/Getty Images

On Wednesday, President Trump announced that his administration would lift sanctions on Turkey after its president Tayyip Erdogan agreed to a “permanent ceasefire” in northern Syria. Lifting sanctions should not be a reward for egregious behavior. Rather, sanctions should be punitive, a strategic response to Turkey’s unprovoked cross-border attack that killed hundreds and displaced more than a quarter million Syrian Kurds. Congress should take the lead with sanctions legislation in order to hold Erdogan accountable. Lifting sanctions condones Turkey’s naked aggression and signals to other countries that they can abuse the rules-based international system with impunity.

Members of Congress are pressuring Trump to modify his decision to lift sanctions on Turkey. Within minutes of Trump’s announcement, Utah senator Mitt Romney wrote on Twitter, “It’s unthinkable that Turkey would not suffer consequences for malevolent behavior which was contrary to the interests of the United States and our friends.” The House has already passed a resolution that condemns the president’s retreat from northern Syria. Rather than address Congressional concerns, however, Trump has doubled down and accelerated the withdrawal of US forces. At this stage, Congress should exercise its power over foreign commerce and impose sanctions on Turkey.


Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, promised sanctions legislation next week. Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, prominent members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also support sanctions. They have proposed legislation restricting Turkey’s access to military equipment and energy resources.

However, Senate action is uncertain. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned lawmakers that sanctions could push Turkey and Russia closer together. McConnell must recognize that Turkey and Russia are already working hand in glove.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to strengthen Russia at NATO’s expense. He has successfully driven a wedge between the United States and Turkey, nominally NATO allies.


When Turkey ignored US entreaties and recently acquired S-400 surface to air missiles from Russia for $2.5 billion, the Pentagon canceled Turkey’s participation in a consortium to produce F-35 stealth fighters based on fears that the war plane’s advanced technology might fall into Russian hands.

Putin and Erdogan’s deal on northern Syria cements Turkey-Russia cooperation. Russians and Turks will jointly patrol the buffer zone now occupied by the Turks and their Arab mercenaries. Putin and Erdogan echoed each other’s message at their October 22 press conference in Sochi. Putin warned that the Kurds will be “mauled” if they refuse to withdraw; Erdogan promised to “smash their heads.”

Putin secured Erdogan’s agreement for actions in other parts of Syria. Russian forces occupied US bases in Manbij and Kobani, consolidating its role in northern Syria and increasing Turkey’s reliance on Russian cooperation. In Idlib, Turkey will abandon Sunni Arab fighters as Russia and Assad take steps to clean the area of opponents.

Erdogan wants to upgrade Turkey’s nuclear energy program and enrich uranium to build a nuclear bomb. He will require Russia’s expertise and assistance.

A new dynamic defines Putin’s relationship with Erdogan. Russia achieved its broad strategic goals for Syria and the Middle East, while Erdogan is forced to accept a limited tactical victory on the border. The United States and its Kurdish allies are the biggest losers.

Senator McConnell should recognize that sanctions legislation will not push Turkey into Russia’s embrace. Turkey has already moved away from the West into a Eurasian orbit of influence. Putin and Erdogan have decided that their national interests are better served by cooperation with one another than through accommodation of the United States.


Russia welcomes Washington’s refusal to impose sanctions on Turkey. Putin opposes sanctions in general, and especially sanctions imposed by the United States and EU, following Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea in 2014.

The United States must impose sanctions now. Beyond military and energy sanctions, the United States should freeze the overseas assets of Erdogan, his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, and son, Bilal, who facilitated the sale of ISIS oil, giving a lifeline to the terror group.

America’s moral authority was undermined by its betrayal of the Kurds and ignominious retreat from Syria. Sanctions represent the best way for the United States to influence events going forward. If Trump won’t act, Congress must.

David Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert at the State Department under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His recent book is “The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.” His forthcoming book is, “Front Line Syria: A Political and Military History of the Civil War.”