Turkey avoids the worst from long-mooted US sanctions

December 15, 2020 11:48 PM

US sanctions against Turkey over its Russian air defence system purchase were lighter than feared, sparing its economy and offering the NATO ally a chance to start afresh with President-elect Joe Biden, experts say.

Officials in Ankara responded to Monday's announcement from Washington -- in the works for several years but triggered by Donald Trump's administration in one of its closing acts -- with carefully calibrated anger.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's press aide Fahrettin Altun called them "unreasonable, fruitless, and ultimately incompatible with the spirit of our partnership".

But the lira held steady against the dollar after it became clear that Turkey's punishment for acquiring Russian S-400 air defence batteries in 2019 was narrowly targeted against its SSB military procurement agency.

The sanctions banned all new US export licenses and loan credits to SSB, and barred the agency's executives from visiting or holding assets in the United States.

Yet they kept in place all existing military programmes and avoided hitting either Turkish banks or Erdogan and his inner circle.

"Despite short-term risks, Trump's move is a blessing for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan," Eurasia Group analyst Emre Peker said.

"Trump's decision to pull the trigger removes a key obstacle to reset relations under Joe Biden."

0.5 out of 10

Turkey turned to Russia after failing to come to terms with Barack Obama's administration about the purchase of US Patriots -- the air defence system of choice for most NATO member states.

Trump developed a personal friendship with Erdogan and resisted imposing sanctions for Turkey's decision to buy arms from a country NATO was created to fight in the Cold War.

Monday's announcement came only after Congress passed a defence spending bill that compelled Trump to either take the punitive measures or fight them with a veto.

BlueBay Asset Management analyst Timothy Ash said the sanctions were significantly lighter that those imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme or on Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea and other abuses.

"Compared to the sanctions options which could have been chosen, say Iran sanctions are a 10 and Russia 3 out of 10, these were something less than 0.5," Ash said.

Most analysts agreed that Biden -- who once called Erdogan an "autocrat" for his approach to human rights and political dissent -- could have found himself in a position to take a much tougher line.

"If these sanctions were imposed as the first thing by the Biden administration, it would have contaminated the whole atmosphere of Turkish-American relations from the start of the Biden term," said Galip Dalay, a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy.

"In a sense it cleared the air for Turkish-American engagements during the Biden era, which will highly likely start with a period of policy review on Turkish-US relations," said Dalay, who is also a non-resident fellow at Brookings Doha Centre.

From Putin's clutches

Analysts believe Biden will have some incentive to mend fences with Turkey after its feuds with traditional Western allies over a host of international disputes.

Turkey has developed a transactional relationship with Russia that finds the two powers on opposite sides of regional conflicts while cooperating on arms sales.

"One of the easiest US wins over Russia for Biden would be pulling Turkey back from the clutches of Putin and back firmly into the Western fold," said Ash.

There are benefits to both sides for a start from a clean slate.

Erdogan wants to see Turkey's wheezing economy improve markedly before he faces re-election in 2023.

"Turkey's economy was effectively under sanctions because of uncertainty over the US decision," said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli of the US German Marshall Fund.

"Now that the uncertainty has been lifted, the economy can go back to business as usual."

But Dalay said Erdogan will still probably push Biden to lift the sanctions -- something US officials insist is impossible without a solution to the S-400 dispute.

"This will be the new irritant in the relations," Dalay told AFP. "The nature of Turkey's engagement with Biden will shape Turkish response."



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