Turkey Sanctions Pass U.S. House as Lawmakers Press Trump
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill Tuesday threatening to sanction Turkey, warning that a deal struck with the Trump administration won’t necessarily save the NATO ally from economic punishment for its military operation in northern Syria.
The bill to sanction Turkish leaders, Halkbank and other financial institutions, and restrict the military’s access to financing and arms, passed 403-16, a veto-proof majority that reflects the widespread outrage over President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria.
Lawmakers say that decision opened the door to Turkish forces and allied militias to take territory controlled by the Kurds, an ethnic minority that fought with the U.S. to defeat Islamic State.
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The House vote demonstrates that Congress still wants to exert influence over Middle East policy, even after Trump on Sunday announced the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an operation led by U.S. troops. It also suggests that lawmakers are not mollified by the deal that Vice President Mike Pence struck with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to halt hostilities in the region.
The president could waive the sanctions for up to 90 days at a time after certifying to Congress that Turkey is upholding the cease-fire.
“President Trump has let Erdogan off scot-free,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel said on the House floor. “It’s up to Congress to act to make it clear where the American government stands.”
The bill “incentivizes Turkey to comply with the cease-fire,” said Michael McCaul, the top Foreign Affairs Republican and co-sponsor of the bill with Engel. “If they do not, there will be consequences in the form of crippling sanctions.”
But in a series of tweets on Tuesday night, Fahrettin Altun, an Erdogan spokesman, said that the bill “threatening sanctions against Turkey is in direct contradiction to the spirit of a strategic alliance.”
“These brazen efforts to damage our relationship will have long lasting detrimental consequences on many areas of existing bilateral cooperation,” he wrote in another post.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry lashed out at the U.S. for reaching out to a leader of a Kurdish militia and said in a statement late Tuesday that American officials “should understand that they cannot achieve anything with the threats of unilateral sanctions.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch said his committee soon may consider a similar bill he introduced along with top committee Democrat Bob Menendez, although the meeting hasn’t been scheduled yet.
“We’ve been working at that feverishly,” Risch said. “Republicans and Democrats are singing off the same sheet of music on this.”
The bill, H.R. 4695, would sanction senior Turkish officials and prohibit them from entering the U.S. It would also prohibit the transfer of U.S. defense materiel to Turkey for use in Syria, and it would require the Pentagon and State Department to submit plans to prevent the resurgence of Islamic State.
It would sanction Halkbank, a state-owned bank, as well as other financial institutions determined to have facilitated transactions that helped finance the invasion. It would also require the administration to impose sanctions already mandated over the purchase by Turkey of a Russian-made missile-defense system.
If the Senate passes an alternative version, the two bills would have to be reconciled before being sent to Trump.
Engel of New York and McCaul of Texas introduced the House bill earlier this month amid bipartisan opposition to the troop withdrawal that left the Kurds vulnerable to attacks from Turkey, which had grown increasingly suspicious of Kurdish autonomy in neighboring Syria.
The House on Oct. 16 adopted a symbolic resolution by a 354-60 vote to disapprove of the U.S. withdrawal and to call on Erdogan to “immediately cease unilateral military action” in the region. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confronted Trump in a closed-door White House meeting about his strategy in the region and cited the resolution as proof that his own party didn’t support his Syria policy.
Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo were sent to Ankara shortly thereafter to negotiate a temporary halt to the Turkish military campaign. Trump later declared the effort a success, converting it to a “permanent” cease-fire in northern Syria. At the same time, Erdogan said he had reached a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish a “safe zone” along the border.
Trump’s Syria envoy, James Jeffrey, told three congressional committees last week that removing troops from the region would make the fight against ISIS more difficult.
“If you remove those troops before that mission is complete, then you have a problem,” Jeffrey told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “And we do have a problem right now.”
In announcing Baghdadi’s death Sunday, Trump said eliminating the terrorist leader would have no bearing on his plans to withdraw troops from the area.
“Look, we don’t want to keep soldiers between Syria and Turkey for the next 200 years,” Trump said. “They have been fighting for hundreds of years. We’re out.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland have introduced their own sanctions legislation that would also target Turkey’s energy industry and sovereign debt. A similar bill was introduced in the House by Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming and 90 other Republicans, but that measure is unlikely to get a vote without Democratic co-sponsors.
There were some words of caution from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who warned his colleagues to “think extremely carefully” before using a tool like sanctions that could push a NATO ally “into the arms of the Russians.” Speaking last week on the Senate floor, the Kentucky Republican said he’s “open to the Senate considering them,” but only after weighing all possible consequences.
McConnell did, however, introduce his own version of a resolution condemning Turkey’s hostilities in northern Syria and expressing support for a continued U.S. presence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Senate could vote on that mostly symbolic measure as soon as this week.
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