Powerful Senate chairman moves toward sanctions crackdown on Turkey

Powerful Senate chairman moves toward sanctions crackdown on Turkey
Copyright 2019 CNN

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch was willing to give Turkey space to consider a US proposal to address its purchases of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

That window is now closed.

Risch, in an interview with CNN, said he not only will mark up a bipartisan sanctions bill targeting the country in his committee next week, but he will also press Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it to the floor.

“I was willing to let the people talk,” Risch said. “Very shortly thereafter it changed, and it has gotten worse instead of better.”

It’s a significant move by Risch, who has been sharply critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but — in the face of growing congressional anger over the country’s weapons purchases and actions in Syria — Risch was willing to give the Trump administration space to reach an agreement that would address the issue. Risch’s determination not to just move forward in committee, but press for Senate passage signals that Turkey, despite President Donald Trump’s repeated personal meetings and calls with Erdoğan, is facing a significant financial cost for its actions.

The committee consideration of the bill will come just one week after Trump met personally with Erdoğan at the NATO Summit in London — a meeting, along with other discussions between senior US and Turkish officials that Risch was briefed on, that made “clear to me that nothing had changed,” Risch said.

It also comes as McConnell has urged caution in pressing forward with harsh sanctions on a NATO ally, making clear lawmakers should carefully examine the proposal and its affect on both US businesses and the geopolitical landscape. McConnell has asked the administration for technical guidance on any potential sanctions package.

The House passed its own sanctions legislation — 403-16 — in October. Trump, for his part, has praised Erdoğan as “a great NATO ally” and during Erdoğan’s November visit to the White House said he was a “big fan” of the Turkish leader.

Trump has repeatedly expressed sympathy for Ankara regarding its acquisition of the S-400, blaming the Obama administration for not agreeing to provide Turkey with the Patriot missile system.

However, French President Emmanuel Macron recently said that this was not a legitimate reason for Turkey to buy the Russian weapons system as the Turks rejected an offer for a European and NATO compliant alternative. The Pentagon is also investigating whether Turkey violated agreements with the US regarding American supplied military equipment, with US officials telling CNN that the they believe it’s likely that Turkey supplied its proxies participating in the incursion in Syria with US-provided military gear.

Risch initially made the decision to hold off on pressing for the sanctions legislation during that visit, after an at times contentious White House meeting between Erdoğan, Trump and a group of Republican senators. At that meeting, Risch said, an American proposal was presented to the Turks that would address administration-wide concerns with the S-400 purchase, and Risch, at the urging of both US and Turkish officials, said he would hold off on moving the sanctions legislation as that proposal was considered.

Before the week was out, however — and after Risch had briefed a group of reporters about the meeting and his decision — it had become clear that Erdoğan would not change course.

On top of that, a US official told CNN that the Turks tested the S-400 about two weeks ago and “believe” they may have used their F-16s as simulated targets.

It was a move that enraged Risch.

“They actually did some testing, particularly as that testing affected our defensibilities,” Risch said.”The party’s over.”

The 67-page bill that was reviewed by CNN has bridged a partisan divide on Risch’s committee, with his staff and the staff of Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the panel, working closely on the technical details over the course of weeks. Menendez has repeatedly pressed to move forward on the legislation in the wake of Turkey’s actions.

The measure itself would go beyond the S-400 issue and include Turkey’s incursion into Syria and operations targeting America’s Kurdish partners in the fight against ISIS.

The measure includes targeted sanctions and restrictions on Turkish officials, institutions, and arms sales tied to operations in Syria and against Kurds and continued use of the S-400.

It would also include language designed to assist the Kurds through the refugee and immigration process, and require a report on any potential war crimes committed during the Syria incursion

US defense officials tell CNN in November that the American military was in possession of at least one drone surveillance video that the US believes captured a possible war crime being perpetrated by Turkish-commanded fighters in Syria.

Underscoring the wilting congressional support for Turkey on Capitol Hill — and extreme frustration with Erdoğan personally in both the House and the Senate — Risch made clear should the bill reach the floor, it would not only pass, but it would pass with a veto-proof margin.

“I suspect that bill’s gonna pass 98-2 on the floor,” he said.

CNN’s Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.