After Trump's 'pinprick' Turkey sanctions, Congress reaches for sledgehammer, aims for Erdogan

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President Trump said the United States will lift sanctions on Turkey after the country said it will make its ceasefire in Syria “permanent.” USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – The House is poised to vote on a biting sanctions bill that could cripple Turkey’s economy and would punish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan personallyby requiring an assessment of his net worth amid questions inside Turkey about his finances.

Lawmakers in both parties are barreling ahead with legislation that would make Erdogan pay for Turkey’s assault on US-allied Kurdish forces in Syria even though the fighting has now mostly stopped. Members of Congress say Erdogan’s attack unleashed violence and chaos that continues to reverberate across the region. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has fast-tracked legislation that would go well beyond President Donald Trump’s temporary sanctions on Turkey. It’s expected to come up for a House vote as early as Tuesday, although it’s fate in the Senate is unclear. 

Among other things, the legislation would:

• Ban most U.S. arms sales to Turkey and sanction other country’s military transactions.

• Blacklist a state-owned bank that is central to Turkey’s economy. 

• Require the State Department to provide a detailed account of Erdogan’s net worth and income – along with that of his family members. 

“The carnage that we have seen over the past week against our Kurdish partners and innocent civilians has been unbearable. There must be consequences,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in unveiling the sanctions bill. He and the committee’s chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., are the chief sponsors. 

“There is broad bipartisan support for getting more information about the sources of Erdogan’s wealth,” Engel said in a statement to USA TODAY. “As Erdogan continues to make policy decisions that destabilize the region and threaten international security, we need to know the full picture of his financial interests.”

Erdogan’s press office in Ankara did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump imposed limited sanctions on Turkey on Oct. 14, about five days after Erdogan ordered the military assault on Syrian Kurdish forces, known as SDF. The president lifted those sanctions nine days later, after Turkey agreed to a ceasefire. 

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“The president’s sanctions were little pinpricks,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who has sponsored a similar Turkey sanctions bill in the Senate, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

When he lifted the sanctions on Oct. 23, Trump said his policy had been a big success.

“By getting that ceasefire to stick, we’ve done something that’s very, very special,” he said. “We have avoided another costly military intervention that could’ve led to disastrous, far-reaching consequences.”

But Van Hollen and others said it’s not clear what impact, if any, Trump’s sanctions had on Turkey.

The House and Senate bills, by contrast, would almost certainly rock Turkey’s already fragile economy. And the provisions targeting Erdogan’s wealth are particularly provocative, experts say. 

Erdogan: From ‘broke’ to ‘well-off’

Both the House and Senate bills would require the State Department, along with U.S. Treasury and intelligence officials, to submit a report to Congress detailing the Erdogan family’s assets, investments, business interests, and income.

That report would include financial information about the Turkish president’s spouse, children, parents and siblings – and Erdogan would see it as a slap in the face, said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington think tank. 

“Erdogan was known to be broke when he entered politics,” said Erdemir. “Now he is a well-off man,” he said. But there’s been little public accounting for that transformation. 

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In 2017, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party said he had documents showing that members of Erdogan’s family, with the help of associates, had transferred at least $15 million to an offshore company in 2011 and 2012. As Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, began addressing parliament regarding the alleged offshore accounts, the state-controlled broadcaster cut the transmission, according to a Voice of America account. Senior members of Erdogan’s party denounced Kilicdaroglu’s remarks as fake news.

Also in 2017, an investigative news outlet focused on the Black Sea region reported that Erdogan’s family owned at least three offshore companies in the Isle of Man.

“Since around 2008, the Erdogan family has operated a network of companies that stretches from Malta to Turkey and ends up in the Isle of Man,” the theblacksea.eu reported in a November 2017 story. “Together, they act as an opaque offshore network designed to obscure the family’s ownership” of a $25 million oil and chemicals tanker called the Agdash, the outlet said.

Erdogan has denied involvement in the activities and blasted the allegations from Turkey’s opposition party as “lies.”

If Erdogan and his family’s finances were to be exposed, “he would see this as a major threat,” Erdemir said. “In Turkey, he has pretty much silenced all the media, and no one would dare to do such an expose. … But if it’s coming from Congress, he would perceive this as very damaging.”

Van Hollen and others say the public – in the U.S. and in Turkey – has a right to know if Erdogan and his family have foreign investments that might be swaying his official actions, most notably Turkey’s increasingly friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

“The goal is to get the facts and find out where Erdogan’s allegiances are, including his financial dealings,” Van Hollen said. 

Targeting a state-owned bank

The House and Senate bills would also sanction a powerful state-owned bank that is enmeshed in a U.S. money laundering and fraud investigation.

Last week, federal prosecutors in New York charged Halkbank with evading U.S. sanctions on Iran by moving billions of dollars in Iranian oil and gas proceeds back to Tehran and disguising some of the transactions as involving food, medicine and other humanitarian aid.

“High-ranking government officials in Iran and Turkey participated in these scheme,” the six-count indictment alleges. “Some officials received bribes worth tens of millions of dollars” to promote the scheme and shield it from the U.S. scrutiny. 

Halkbank is the second-largest state-owned bank in Turkey, and Erdogan personally lobbied Trump to intervene in the case, according to reports last week from Bloomberg and the New York Times. Bloomberg reported that Trump had tasked his attorney general and Treasury secretary to deal with Erdogan’s repeated pleas to avoid the charges.

If Congress sanctions Halkbank, “that’s a big deal,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington foreign policy institute. He and others said it would link Turkey’s incursion into Syria to the U.S. criminal case and would deal a heavy blow to the Turkish economy. 

The House bill is likely to pass with bipartisan support, as lawmakers in both parties clamor for a more forceful U.S. response to Turkey’s actions. 

Critics say Trump’s Oct. 6 decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the Turkey-Syria border region gave Erdogan the green light to attack the Kurds, who have been America’s chief ally in the fight against Islamic State terrorists. Trump administration officials have argued that the president’s decision simply removed those troops from harm’s way and the U.S. never promised the Kurds they would protect them against a Turkish military attack. 

“Congress must speak out and show decisive action to hold accountable those who created this catastrophe: President Erdogan, who is directing this slaughter, and President Trump, who opened the door to the Turkish incursion and betrayed our Kurdish partners,” said Engel, the bill’s lead sponsor and Foreign Affairs Committee chairman.

Bill could face a major hurdle in the Senate

“We need to think extremely carefully before” imposing sanctions on a NATO ally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week. He said it’s not clear if such economic penalties would weaken Erdogan inside Turkey or “rally the country to cause.” He said the impact of such a bill could also hurt American companies and U.S. allies whose economies are closely intertwined with Turkey’s.

Van Hollen said he hopes the House’s actions will put pressure on McConnell to reconsider that position.

“The Senate needs to stop twiddling its thumbs and take action,” he said.

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