Donald Trump moved on Monday to punish Turkey for its military advance into Syria, imposing sanctions on several Turkish ministers and departments and saying he would double tariffs on the country’s steel exports to 50 per cent.
The US president has attracted sharp criticism from fellow Republicans, Democrats and US allies after making an abrupt shift in US foreign policy in the region this month by consenting to a Turkish military incursion in north-east Syria against US-backed Kurdish militias who have been instrumental in defeating Isis.
Steven Mnuchin, US Treasury secretary, said on Monday evening that Mr Trump had signed an executive order, effective immediately, imposing sanctions on Turkey’s defence, energy and interior ministers, as well as the Turkish government’s defence and energy departments.
Speaking outside the White House, Mr Mnuchin said “secondary sanctions” would apply to financial institutions that carry out transactions for the sanctioned individuals and departments.
Mr Mnuchin was joined outside the White House by Mike Pence, US vice-president, who said the sanctions were intended to bring about a ceasefire in the region, and that he and national security adviser Robert O’Brien would head to Turkey soon to begin talks with government officials.
“The president’s objective here is very clear: that the sanctions that were announced today will continue and will worsen unless and until Turkey embraces an immediate ceasefire, stops the violence and agrees to negotiate a long-term settlement of the issues along the border between Turkey and Syria,” Mr Pence said.
Mr Trump signalled his intention to impose sanctions on Monday afternoon in a statement on Twitter in which he also he would increase tariffs on steel imported from Turkey to the US to 50 per cent and halt negotiations over “a $100bn trade deal” between the two countries. The US had halved tariffs on Turkish steel in May to 25 per cent.
“The United States will aggressively use economic sanctions to target those who enable, facilitate and finance these heinous acts in Syria,” Mr Trump said. “I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path.”
In announcing the sanctions, Mr Mnuchin said licenses would remain in place to allow the UN and other non-governmental organisations, as well as the US government, to continue to operate in Turkey.
He also said the country would be able to continue to buy fuel under the sanctions regime, adding: “We are not looking to shut down the energy for the people of Turkey.”
Democratic leaders in the Senate swiftly rejected Monday’s announcement by Mr Trump, saying: “Strong sanctions, while good and justified, will not be sufficient.” The senators called on Republicans to join them in “passing a resolution making clear that both parties are demanding the president’s decision be reversed”.
Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, said: “President Trump has unleashed an escalation of chaos and insecurity in Syria. His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Mr Trump’s move was also less harsh than many investors in Turkey feared, after reports suggested Turkish financial institutions could be targeted. Turkey’s lira added to its losses on the announcement, to trade more than 0.7 per cent weaker at 5.9267 to the dollar.
On Sunday, Recep Tayyip Erodgan, Turkey’s president, said sanctions would not make him change course in Syria, saying: “Those who think they can make Turkey turn back with these threats are gravely mistaken.”
The White House initially said the US would remove a small number of troops from near the Syrian border with Turkey. But on Sunday, Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, said that the roughly 1,000 American forces stationed in northern Syria would be pulled out because the Turkish offensive would be broader than expected. Hours later, Kurdish forces said they had struck a deal with the Syrian regime and its Russian backers to stem the Turkish incursion.
Mr Trump said on Monday that a “small footprint” of US forces would remain at At Tanf, a military base in southern Syria, to “continue to disrupt remnants of Isis”.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican senate majority leader who has historically backed the president, said on Monday that he was “gravely concerned by recent events in Syria and by our nation’s apparent response thus far”. He had previously warned that a “precipitous withdrawal” would benefit Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, as well as Isis.
Analysts say the Turkish economy is better placed to withstand punitive measures than it was last summer, when largely symbolic US sanctions aimed at forcing the release of an American pastor detained in Turkey wiped almost 30 per cent off the value of the lira.
However, the country remains heavily reliant on foreign financing that could be scared off by sanctions. Turkey has $180bn in short-term debt coming due within in the next year.
Analysts worry that given the high tensions between Ankara and Washington, sanctions could descend into a spiral of tit-for-tat measures. Turkey’s foreign ministry has said the country would respond with “full reciprocity” to US sanctions.
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