July 23, 2019 | Policy Brief

Trump Talks Turkey Sanctions with Congress

President Donald Trump will meet with Republican senators today to discuss Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Moscow. Turkey’s $2.5 billion deal violates U.S. law, specifically the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which mandates penalties on those who make sizable purchases of Russian arms. While Trump has expressed opposition to sanctions, senators Rick Scott (R-FL) and Todd Young (R-IN) have introduced a resolution calling for the full weight of sanctions on Turkey.

The December 2017 decision of Turkey, a NATO ally, to buy the S-400 has long worried U.S. officials. The system is designed to target U.S. and NATO aircraft such as the F-35, America’s next-generation fighter jet. Last month, the Department of Defense announced that it would halt the training of Turkish pilots and ground crew for the F-35 on American bases by the end of July should Turkey take delivery of the S-400s. When the delivery of S-400s to Turkey began last week, the White House officially declared Ankara’s “continued involvement” with the F-35 program “impossible”.

Turkey’s S-400 deal also triggers sanctions under CAATSA. The 2017 law, which passed with votes in the House and Senate of 419-3 and 98-2, respectively, bars individuals and entities from engaging in significant transactions with the Russian defense and intelligence sectors. Turkey’s multi-billion dollar deal is squarely within the target set of transactions Congress hoped to ban. Thus, the law requires the president and secretary of state to impose five out of twelve possible punitive measures on Turkey. These measures range from the denial of international loans to bans on utilizing U.S. financial institutions, denial of visas to Turkish executives, cutting off access to the U.S. dollar, and bans on exports to Turkey.

Trump, who enjoys a close relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and has been sympathetic toward Turkish arguments regarding the S-400 purchase, declared last week that he was “not looking at [sanctioning Turkey] right now.” Erdogan has long lobbied Trump to issue a waiver on CAATSA sanctions for national security purposes and is banking on the president’s willingness to do so.

The administration, however, is likely to move forward with sanctions. CAATSA permits the president to issue a waiver or delay implementation for 180 days. But to do either, Trump would need to certify to Congress that Turkish officials are reducing their transactions with Russia, or that a waiver would be in the national security interest of the United States. Congress has already passed resolutions expressing its view that Turkey’s S-400 deal violates CAATSA – a clear call for Trump to fully implement the sanctions. Meanwhile, Trump’s team has reportedly already determined the sanctions package for Turkey.

Rather than asking for a waiver or delay, therefore, Trump will more likely seek to convince Republican senators that it is in the United States’ interest to apply five of the more lenient out of the 12 options in CAATSA. But even that pitch may be difficult to sell, given the increasingly bipartisan frustration with Turkey in both the House and Senate. Congress maintains an adversarial relationship with Turkey and will likely not be satiated by half measures from the administration, thus limiting Trump’s policy options.

Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Tyler Stapleton is the deputy director of congressional relations. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) and Center on Political and Military Power (CMPP). Follow them on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu and @Ty_D_Stapleton. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance Turkey U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy