February 13, 2018 | Policy Brief

Tillerson Goes to Turkey amid Sanctions Talk in Washington

February 13, 2018 | Policy Brief

Tillerson Goes to Turkey amid Sanctions Talk in Washington

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to visit Turkey on Thursday amidst a breakdown of trust between the U.S. and its longtime NATO ally. Analysts are warning about “a real danger of a clash between U.S. and Turkish forces” in northern Syria. In Washington, lawmakers are calling for sanctions on Turkey with an ever-louder voice. 

This week, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, calling on the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Ankara under the Global Magnitsky Act, which authorizes targeted sanctions on foreign nationals who engage in corruption or human rights abuses. Lankford urged the White House to sanction the Turkish officials responsible for the wrongful jailing of American citizens there. The senator also pressed Secretary Tillerson to deny, per Lankford’s amendment to the State Department spending bill, entry to the U.S. for those officials. 

Since the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, Turkish authorities have jailed two U.S. citizens – North Carolina Pastor Andrew Brunson and NASA physicist Serkan Golge – under the country’s state of emergency rule. Both of them face trumped-up charges of aiding terrorism. On Friday, Golge was sentenced to a seven-year prison term, while Brunson remains in jail, awaiting his sentence. 

In addition, three Turkish members of the U.S. consular staff in Turkey were detained over the last year and remain either in jail or under house arrest. Their detention culminated in a diplomatic spat last fall, when Washington and Ankara suspended visa services to each other’s citizens. The two countries restored visa services last month, yet Turkish authorities are harassing U.S. employees once again, creating the potential for another dispute. 

Congress has become increasingly frustrated with Turkey since late 2012, when reports first emerged of Turkish efforts to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions on its nuclear program. Since then, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s heavy-handed crackdown on his opposition at home and support for Islamists abroad have only worsened Turkey’s image in Washington. When Erdogan’s bodyguards beat up protestors outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC in 2016, Congress responded with outrage. Last September, the Senate voted to freeze arms sales intended for the Turkish president’s security detail. 

Turkey also faces potential sanctions for its weapons purchases from NATO foes. In September, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the White House to sanction Turkey for inking a deal to buy S-400 anti-aircraft batteries from Moscow. Turkey’s deal involved the Russian manufacturer Almaz-Antey and weapons exporter Rosoboronexport, both of which the U.S. sanctioned in recent years. Washington therefore has the authority to sanction Turkish entities that violate those sanctions. 

The secretary of state should not expect a warm welcome in Ankara. Yet appeasing Erdogan will do nothing to prevent him from perpetrating further outrages. Instead, the secretary should convey clearly the mood in Washington and the stakes involved. After all, an honest and sobering talk is what Erdogan does not get at home. 

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.

Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.