Before their meeting Thursday, President Trump praised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bragged about their friendship and claimed that U.S.-Turkey relations are at an all time high. Trump may not be aware he might soon have to sanction Erdogan for striking a major arms deal with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“I think right now we are as close as we’ve ever been. And a lot of that has to do with the personal relationship,” said Trump, on the sideline of the U.N. General Assembly. “He’s getting high marks.”
Set aside that U.S.-Turkey relations are extremely strained right now and Erdogan is getting very low marks from human rights groups, Congress and others because of his domestic crackdown. It’s Erdogan’s stated plan to spend billions purchasing the S-400 missile defense system from Russia that threatens to spoil his chummy relationship with Trump.
According to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which Trump signed into law last month, the administration is required to sanction any foreign entities that engage in significant transactions with the Russian Federation’s defense and intelligence sectors, according to lawmakers and experts.
Erdogan announced last week he signed the $2.5 billion contract with Russia and put down a deposit, ignoring public and private U.S. warnings. He defended the move Tuesday in an interview with PBS News Hour, promising to see it through.
“We have asked for those weapons from many NATO allies and primarily the United States, but we were turned down. That’s why we have to resort to other means,” he said. “Russia is willing to support us all the way to a possible joint manufacturing of these missiles.”
Erdogan also claimed that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had endorsed the move, but Stoltenberg said later he urged Erdogan to focus on systems that are interoperable with NATO systems, which the Russian system is not.
Inside the Trump administration, an internal debate is emerging over what to do. Some officials in the Pentagon seek to interpret the law as to not require sanctions on Turkey, out of concern that could complicate military-to-military cooperation, according to sources familiar with the discussion.
In other parts of the military, there is much less sympathy for Turkey, especially because U.S. Central Command has relied much more heavily on working with Kurdish forces in Syria. The State Department’s office in control of coordinating the fight against the Islamic State is also heavily involved with Kurdish forces, which is a major irritant in the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
The Trump administration has made no decisions on how it plans to implement the sanctions. Many parts of the legislation are under review because it covers not just Russia but also Iran and North Korea. Trump signed the bill but also signed a statement complaining about the constitutional implications of compelling the executive to use sanctions in such a directed manner.
Congress is watching the internal administration debate closely and preparing to enforce its intentions if the Trump administration balks.
“The clear congressional intent is that a lot of these sanctions are mandatory,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Ben Cardin (Md.) told me. Cardin said he intends “to follow up on making sure that congressional intent and authority is properly respected.”
In a Sept. 6 committee hearing, he and Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) raised the prospect of sanctioning Turkey over the Russia deal. They both also heavily criticized Erdogan for his crackdown on civil society, his political opposition and the free press in Turkey since the failed coup attempt last year.
“Erdogan has not only domestically acted against journalists, opposition leaders and innocent Americans, he has rebuffed allies internationally,” said Corker. “We need Turkey working with us, not against us.”
Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, testified at the hearing that the United States hasn’t made it clear to Ankara that moving forward on the Russia deal could complicate things such as U.S. arms sales to Turkey due to the new sanctions legislation.
“Congress is going to have to sanction a NATO ally,” Cook told me. “If Turkey is subject to sanctions, you are really going to have a deterioration of the relationship beyond what we have ever seen before.”
State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters in a Sept. 12 briefing that the administration has “concern” about Erdogan’s arms deal with Russia and that the move was “inconsistent” with commitments made by NATO members at the Warsaw summit to work to reduce dependency on Russian-sourced military equipment.
Trump’s foreign policy doctrine of “principled realism” is presented as a means of separating values-based concerns with foreign governments with those issues that actually pose a threat to the security of America and its allies. Erdogan’s deal with Russia clearly falls into the latter category.
A NATO ally shouldn’t rely on missile defense built by the country it’s supposed to be pointed at. If Turkey isn’t fully part of NATO’s missile defense, that weakens that system’s effectiveness to protect all alliance members. Moreover, cooperation with Putin’s military could pull Turkey closer to Russia’s strategic position, which includes undermining NATO.
The best way to avoid sanctions is for Erdogan to end his country’s military cooperation with Russia. It’s an issue that Congress won’t let slide and that Trump can’t ignore, even for a close friend.