(CNSNews.com) – For the second time in 14 months, the Trump administration on Monday imposed sanctions on Turkey, a NATO ally, in a bid to pressure its Islamist government to change direction on policies seen as inimical to U.S. interests.
Demanding that Turkey stop its unilateral military offensive in northeastern Syria and commit to an immediate ceasefire, the administration targeted for punitive measures three senior government ministers and Ankara’s defense and energy ministries.
President Trump announced he was ramping tariffs on steel imports from Turkey back up to 50 percent – from the 25 percent level they dropped to last May – and said the Department of Commerce would immediately stop negotiations underway for a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey.
“I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” he warned in a statement.
Vice President Mike Pence told reporters he and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien would travel to Turkey as soon as possible to lead efforts to arbitrate an end to Turkey’s offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces who were allies in the U.S.-led campaign to defeat ISIS.
Pence said the U.S. would continue to toughen the sanctions “unless Turkey is willing to embrace a ceasefire, come to the negotiating table, and end the violence.”
Turkish officials have responded defiantly to Western criticism of its military assault, saying the U.S. and Europe should be supportive of a NATO ally confronting what they maintain are “terrorists.”
“We are determined to continue the operation until the end, without paying attention to threats,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Baku on Monday. “Our battle will continue until ultimate victory is achieved.”
Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, and has the second-largest standing army in the alliance, after the United States.
But strains have emerged under the leadership of Erdogan, first as a three-term prime minister and since 2014 as president. His willingness to side with Iran at a time when the U.S. sought to isolate it, hostility towards Israel, and sympathies with the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization Hamas raised alarms in the West, as have his autocratic policies at home.
In August last year the U.S. imposed sanctions against two Turkish government ministers over the treatment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical leader accused of espionage and terror-related offenses widely viewed as bogus.
Pence in particular was outspokenly critical of Turkey’s harassment of Brunson, who was behind bars or under house arrest for two years before being released and returned home a year ago.
Last year’s action against ministers in Erdogan’s inner circle was taken under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, which provides for punitive measures against human rights abusers and corrupt actors globally.
The targeted cabinet members were Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül.
Soylu was again targeted in Monday’s new sanctions, along with Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Energy Minister Fatih Donmez.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also warned of the risk of secondary sanctions on anyone engaging in certain transactions with the designated individuals and ministries
“[A]ny foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates any significant financial transactions for or on behalf of the persons designated today could be subject to U.S. correspondent or payable through account sanctions,” he said in a statement.
Turkey has been waging a decades-long campaign inside its borders against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdogan has long been unhappy about the existence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in neighboring Syria, and especially about the presence there of the PKK-affiliated Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Erdogan’s “Operation Peace Spring” aims to clear a strip of territory in northeastern Syria of the YPG, and then resettle in the area millions of Syrians who fled the civil war to find shelter in Turkey.
But the YPG fighters are a leading contingent of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group which allied with the U.S. in the costly fight against ISIS, helping to liberate large swathes of northeastern Syria from the Sunni jihadists.
Trump’s decision last week to move U.S. troops in northeastern Syria out of the way ahead of Turkey’s looming offensive has drawn flak from critics who argue it amounts to abandoning those Kurdish allies, risks strengthening the hands of Russia and Iran in Syria, and could result in a resurgence of ISIS.
In a fluid and quickly-changing situation, the SDF has now struck an agreement with the Assad regime, whose forces are being deployed to the area near the Turkish border.
Meanwhile the withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. troops from Syria will be moving ahead. However, Trump said in his statement they would “remain in the region to monitor the situation and prevent a repeat of 2014,” when ISIS rampaged across Syria and Iraq.
In addition, “a small footprint of United States forces will remain at At Tanf Garrison in southern Syria [near the Jordanian border] to continue to disrupt remnants of ISIS.”