Last week, EU members met in Brussels to discuss a host of issues the Union faces in 2021. Sanctions against Turkey were on the table, ostensibly to punish it for what some members claim are its “illegal activities” in the Eastern Mediterranean. But unity in the Union is in short supply these days. The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who called for much tougher sanctions, claimed “the credibility of the European Union” is on the line. Meanwhile, in a rare show of unity in the U.S., the Congress overwhelmingly approved the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes CAATSA sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of the S -400 missile system. Sanctions, our chief political scientist argues, are no more than a blunt instrument in international relations. So, should Turkey be worried?
Adnan R. Khan: Sanctioning Turkey is no small deal considering its geopolitical importance. Where does the EU stand on applying sanctions?
Ilter Turan: It seems that there is a continuing significant split among EU’s ranks, including whether Turkey should be subjected to hard sanctions or a lower degree – or maybe even symbolic – sanctions. Not surprisingly, Greece and Cyprus, both supported and instigated by France and joined by others such as Austria and Denmark are insisting on hard sanctions. Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, Hungary and others are much less interested in such harsh measures. Instead, they want to apply limited sanctions while encouraging Turkey to settle its differences through negotiations. Those preferring moderation have prevailed so far.
Adnan R. Khan: Turkey has faced sanctions from its allies before, for instance in 1974 when the U.S. slapped an arms embargo on it over its intervention in Cyprus. That constituted an impetus for Turkey to devote more resources to developing its own military capabilities. Still the NATO alliance survived. How has the context changed today? Are there more dangers than in the past?
Ilter Turan: The fundamental point to note is that the world has changed in major ways since the end of the Cold War. Many countries are no longer willing to accept unquestioned American leadership – which has dominated NATO in the past – over their own strategy and defense. They want to exercise a lot more autonomy in their external relations, be it in their respective regions or elsewhere, and Turkey is no exception. What is needed is a formula whereby the desires of individual NATO members to conduct their own policies even allowing for some competitive relationships among themselves can be accommodated, while simultaneously preserving the solidarity of the alliance to such a degree that if it were challenged by significant adversaries, it would be capable of responding in a unified way.
Adnan R. Khan: A separate sanctions bill has been passed by the U.S. Congress making it likely that the Americans will impose CAATSA sanctions on Turkey. Can you talk a little bit about that and what the fallout might be?
Ilter Turan: There are two key questions we need to answer: Firstly, will Donald Trump veto the bill? That appears unlikely because it enjoys very high levels of bipartisan support in both houses. The second question is what sanctions will the president choose to implement? There is some speculation that the president will simply leave the decision to Biden. But if he is compelled to act, then the question is: Will he choose harsh or the softer measures within the CAATSA framework? Until recently, the assumption was that Trump would choose soft measures but the recent behavior of his Secretary of State suggests the position of the Trump administration toward Turkey may have become more hostile.
Adnan R. Khan: What does that mean in practice for Turkey?
Ilter Turan: The critical question is whether Turkey’s “allies” will accept that Turkey is now more of an autonomous actor in its region, which includes the Middle East, the Caucasus and also the Eastern Mediterranean. If allies are cognizant of this desire and accept it as legitimate then differences may be accommodated with relative ease. If, however, this is does not happen, I am concerned that relations will deteriorate. Clearly there will be economic costs but they will be borne by all sides even if more by Turkey. And usually governments that lose on the economic front in the sanctions game win on the public support side. They gain sympathy because the perception is that their government is fighting against bullying by major powers and they want their government to have a greater say in the international arena. So, I think both sides have to tread very carefully to make it possible for Turkey to become a more active partner in regional politics while actively cooperating with friends and allies to pursue peace and stability. The alternative would be an outcome in which everyone loses and there are no winners.