Targeted sanctions could be more effective after Turkey’s S-400 purchase

Everything, it seems, goes as envisioned by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Embittered by what he perceives as open enmity from Washington, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been proceeding with the transfer to Turkish soil of Russia’s advanced S-400 missile defence systems, in sheer defiance of the principles of the traditional transatlantic alliance.

Putin deserves all the credit for progress that he surely believes will serve Russia’s global interests in pushing back the United States’ decades-long influence in the region, where Turkey is at the epicentre. His was an extremely well-calculated move, with the deep insight that if you move the stone called Turkey from under NATO, it will inflict severe damage to the Kremlin’s major adversary. And it does.

Consequently, the historic shift symbolised by this purchase presented the Trump administration with a huge dilemma: Whether to punish Turkey for severely endangering the interoperability of NATO weapons systems and to what extent.

As if the Turkish-American crisis weren’t a striking enough tectonic shift, the escalating rift between the European Union and Turkey because of the drilling for hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean has landed as icing on the cake.

Now, the United States and the European Union are facing the same challenge of whether to counter Erdogan’s high-stakes gamble. The ground has never been so ripe for Putin to harvest what he desires.

There are voices questioning the logic of Ankara’s escalatory moves. Professor Ersin Kalaycioglu asked why Turkey has resorted to raw, and not soft, power in recent years, saying he regretted that Ankara is chiefly responsible for the troubles with Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Greece…

“Russia doesn’t agree either with Turkey’s thesis on the region in general and it is impossible to understand why we squeezed ourselves into a corner,” Kalaycioglu told Voice of America.

Given the national mood, serving Erdogan so well, such voices get lost in translation.

“Erdogan’s ideologues portray the United States as an ‘enemy country.’ Turks increasingly buy that line. Seven of ten Turks questioned said they feel threatened by US power, a 28-percentage-point increase since 2013 — a higher jump than in any country recently polled,” said Blaise Misztal, a fellow with the Hudson Institute.

The main calculation in Erdogan’s gamble is this: Let them — the United States or the European Union — sanction Turkey and I will have a field day capitalising on increased anti-Western sentiment at home. The European Union could take a slightly softer line on Turkey by choosing to impose sanctions on what it sees as illegal drilling in the territorial waters of Cyprus. These would take into account sensitivities regarding business with Turkey and the fear of millions of Syrian refugees it has been keeping on its soil.

For the United States, such concerns as these are “trivial.”

The US Senate’s rapid move to impose the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act penalties has to do, as Natasha Turak reported on CNBC, with the senators’ hope that sanctions will send a clear message about NATO members buying weapons from non-NATO countries.

If Washington stays aloof, as US President Donald Trump implies it should, a precedent will take shape, setting the stage for US allies to roam free. This would speed up the grand decline of American power.

Not a surprise, then, that analysts have begun the usual rounds of tearing their hair considering whether punishing a big ally with a powerful military is a good idea. Could it backfire? Some argue that an impulsive set of sanctions would help Turkey de-orbit rapidly into the lap of the Kremlin.

Turkey could respond to sanctions by restricting US access to its Incirlik Airbase, a strategically vital launchpad for American operations in the region.

It could also escalate attacks on US-backed Kurdish militias in Syria, where the two have long been at loggerheads over the armed groups that each country supports, as Turak argues.

There are those who agree, adding that, at this stage, transactional deals with strongmen — and not sanctions — work much more efficiently. There are others who push for a full-scale embargo regime, based on the notion that the softer you are with bullying leaders like Erdogan, the more ground you lose.

It’s an old dilemma in a new, big bottle but, at the core, it is simple. First, you should care that people are touched by embargos as little as possible, so they know they are not the targets.

Second, we know, from the example of Russian oligarchs close to Putin, what type of sanctions work. Since the logic goes that the S-400/F-35 crisis is far too big for Trump to ignore, that it is “above him,” the wise move would be to shape the sanctions to target people and institutions closest to Erdogan and all those who push for aggressive adventurism in the region.

Sanctions must be directed intensely at well-defined single targets, to be enhanced to similar others. This seems to be the only language that goes to the heads of political thugs who keep their people as mass hostages in potentially lethal confrontations.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.