Turkey sanctions bills likely to move despite ceasefire

Shaky ceasefire agreement halting Syrian Kurd attacks appears to not appease lawmakers, who may still vote to impose sanctions

This picture taken on October 18, 2019 from the Turkish side of the border at Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa shows fire and smoke rising from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain on the first week of Turkey's military operation against Kurdish forces. The shaky ceasefire agreement with Turkey to halt its attacks on the Syrian Kurds does not appear to have done much to slake lawmakers’ appetite for imposing sanctions on the longtime NATO ally. (OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)

A shaky ceasefire agreement with Turkey to halt its attacks on the Syrian Kurds does not appear to have done much to slake lawmakers’ appetite for imposing sanctions on the longtime NATO ally.

President Donald Trump was quick to declare victory Thursday after Ankara agreed to a five-day ceasefire in its attacks on Kurds in northern Syria. Kurdish fighters are supposed to use that window, which the Turkish government is describing not as a ceasefire but as a “pause,” to withdraw to roughly 20 miles south of the Turkish border.

[Lopsided cease-fire ‘deal’ emboldens Turkey, harms U.S. allies]

But with the Kurds telling news outlets on Friday that Turkish forces were shelling civilian targets in the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain, members of both parties arguing the ceasefire agreed to by Vice President Mike Pence gave Turkey everything it wanted, and Republicans providing at best tepid cover for the administration, Trump’s claimed victory appears illusory.

Unless extended, as the administration hopes, the ceasefire will end on Tuesday, right as lawmakers will be getting back to work after the weekend. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a joint statement Thursday with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., that she plans to bring a sanctions package up for a vote next week.

“Next week, the House will pass a strong, bipartisan sanctions package to work to reverse the humanitarian disaster that President Trump unleashed in Syria,” the Democratic leaders said.

It is not clear which sanctions measure Pelosi was referring to but it is likely a bill, from the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

But that’s not the only sanctions proposal generating attention. A bipartisan sanctions bill in the Senate, led by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., by Friday had accrued 15 co-sponsors, including seven Republicans.

There is a third competing sanctions bill from Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., which has 111 GOP co-sponsors.

Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and ranking member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., have announced they are developing a “comprehensive” Turkey policy bill that will include a sanctions element. And Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has his own bill (S 2624) that would indefinitely end weapon sales to Turkey.

The determination, particularly among Republicans, to pass sanctions on the Turkish armed forces and even some key Turkish financial institutions underlines just how alarmed lawmakers are by Trump’s decision last week to abandon the Syrian Kurds and acquiesce to a Turkish takeover of their positions in northeast Syria.

The president reversed course and tried to walk back his actions after coming under widespread bipartisan criticism, including in a resounding House vote earlier this week, 354-60, to pass a joint resolution condemning his withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Lawmakers fear Trump’s decision will have dire consequences for U.S. national security because it could allow the Islamic State to rebuild itself in the region and because the U.S. withdrawal has already strengthened the position of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and consequently those of his two biggest allies: Russia and Iran. Additionally, policymakers fear the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria will harm America’s reputation as a reliable ally and steady hand.

“We believe that the rise of ISIS [Islamic State] is imminent if this continues,” Graham said during a Thursday press conference promoting his sanctions bill with Van Hollen. He subsequently added that he believed a vote on his legislation “would be veto-proof.”

Still, some Republicans are calling for a pause in sanctions efforts to see if the ceasefire will hold.

“I’d take a pause right now,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “Before we move anything, I think we would have to have a meeting as a whole, to listen to the latest information on the ground.”

And House Foreign Affairs lead Republican Michael McCaul told Fox News he is prepared to move forward with his sanctions bill with Chairman Eliot L. Engel “if this ceasefire does not work, but we certainly want to give it a chance to see if peace can be accomplished in this region.”

Sanctions proposals overlap but vary

While there is significant overlap between the three main sanctions bills, there are also some notable differences.

For example, the bills from Cheney and Graham-Van Hollen would directly sanction Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The measure from Engel, D-.N.Y., and McCaul, R-Texas, would not.

Generally, the sanctions and other restrictions on trade and assistance to Turkey in the Engel-McCaul bill, which is likely to get a floor vote next week, are less harsh than the other two measures.

The sanctions in the Engel-McCaul bill would take at least two weeks to go into effect while the penalties in the Graham-Van Hollen and Cheney measures would be enacted immediately under the thinking there is no time to waste in targeting Turkey’s military as the positions of the Syrian Kurds are quickly collapsing.

And while the Cheney and Graham-Van Hollen bills would impose sanctions on anyone that sells weapons to the Turkish military, the House Foreign Affairs legislation would only forbid arms exports if they are going to be used in the Syria offensive. But difficulties often arise when verifying whether arms exports ultimately are being used for the purpose for which the U.S. government licensed them.

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