U.S., hesitant to press sanctions, seeks deal with Turkey

Washington’s rocky relations with its NATO allies in Ankara continue to present serious problems for U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, but there will be no rush to impose sanctions, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told reporters at a press briefing on Thursday.

Rather, Trump is seeking a deal with Turkey that would prevent it from activating the Russian missile defence systems it received earlier this month, in defiance of U.S. warnings, Defense One senior national security correspondent Katie Bo Williams quoted Senator Lindsey Graham as saying.

The missiles have been one of several sticking points bringing relations between the countries to the brink of a major rift this year. There is bipartisan agreement in the U.S. Congress that Ankara’s procurement of the Russian systems, against the objections of NATO allies, warrants sanctions.

But Trump is hesitant to take action due to threats from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Turkey was prepared to walk out of NATO or kick U.S. airmen out of an important airbase in the south of the country if sanctions are triggered, NBC News reported yesterday.

There is “no timetable” for sanctions, which would be a “very, very serious action”, Ortagus told reporters on Thursday, confirming that Washington is not yet prepared to implement the sanctions already mandated by Congress.

“One of the things that we always do here at the State Department is, we always try to preserve relationships. Turkey has been working with us incredibly hard in the fight with ISIS in Syria, and they have many of their own accomplishments to point to there,” the spokesperson said.

Instead, Graham, a frequent interlocutor with Turkish officials, was asked to deliver the terms for a new deal to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Defense One reported.

“My pitch to Turkey was: let’s stand down on the S-400, let’s start free-trade agreement negotiations,” the news site quoted Graham as saying.

If common ground is found on the S-400 purchase, that still leaves serious issues on the table including the allies’ diverging Syria policies.

Ortagus responded to questions on the standoff on the border with northeast Syria, where Turkish forces have amassed across from the Kurdish militias backed by the United States.

Turkey sees the Kurdish forces as a threat due to their links to outlawed militants fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, but the Syrian Kurdish forces have been crucial partners in the international coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS).

The U.S. special envoy dealing with Syria and the fight against ISIS, James Jeffrey, has been trying to hash out a deal with Turkey to create a “safe zone” on the border, but has made no concrete progress.

On Thursday, comments by Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar were widely interpreted by Turkish press as meaning the Turkish military was making preparations to launch a cross-border operation.

 “Clearly this is not an easy issue. It’s one of the more challenging issues in Jeffrey’s portfolio. The president’s goals, the secretary’s goals in Syria are to prevent a security vacuum that destabilises the area,” Ortagus said.

“We want to do that by addressing Turkey’s legitimate security concerns and by also protecting our partners in the fight against ISIS,” she said.