Senate panel advances Turkey sanctions bill despite Trump objections

Aaron Schwartz

A Senate panel on Wednesday advanced a sanctions bill targeting Turkey over its offensive in Syria and its purchase of a Russian missile defense system.

In an 18-4 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced the bill despite objections from the Trump administration and Ankara.

“We find ourselves at an inflection point with Turkey,” committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “Turkey’s actions over the past year are truly beyond the pale.”

U.S. lawmakers have been furious with Turkey since October when it launched an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces who were integral to the U.S.-led fight against ISIS.

President Trump also faced widespread criticism for announcing a withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria, which paved the way for Turkey’s incursion.

Congress’s patience with Ankara had already been wearing thin since Turkey took delivery over the summer of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. Turkey went through with the purchase despite warnings from U.S. officials the system was a threat to the U.S.-made F-35 fighter jet and would mean sanctions.

In response to the S-400 purchase, the Pentagon kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program. But the Trump administration has not yet imposed sanctions over the purchase, despite the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) requiring sanctions on those who do business with Russia’s defense sector.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) argued Wednesday that Turkey “thumbed their nose at us” with the S-400 purchase and that “if we just look the other way on this … we will be viewed as weak.”

Speaking to reporters after the committee vote, Risch said he was in discussions with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote, but cautioned that the chamber is expected to be busy soon with impeachment proceedings.

McConnell has previously expressed concern about passing a Turkey sanctions bill because it is a NATO ally.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) relayed the Trump administration’s objections to the sanctions bill, saying the administration penned letters raising concerns. Among the issues raised was that the sanctions would take away “flexibility” in negotiating with Turkey, said Paul, who voted against the bill.

The other “no” votes Wednesday came from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

The House passed a Turkey sanctions bill in October in an overwhelming, veto-proof 403-16 vote.

Risch, though, had wanted to hold off on passing a sanctions bill to give space for the Trump administration and Ankara to negotiate a resolution to the S-400 issue.

Risch and several other Republican senators met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he visited the White House last month and relayed a warning that he must get rid of the S-400.

But since then Erdoğan has shown no signs of reversing course. On his way home from Washington, Erdoğan said he would not give up the S-400, and a couple of weeks ago, Turkey tested the system’s radars by flying U.S.-made F-16s over Ankara.

On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu suggested Turkey could retaliate against sanctions by booting U.S. troops from Incirlik Air Base and Kurecik Radar Station. Incirlik has been a major launchpad for U.S. military operations against ISIS. The United States is also said to be housing about 50 nuclear warheads at Incirlik.

Turkey has claimed — and Trump has echoed — that it turned to the S-400 because the U.S. wouldn’t sell it the Patriot missile defense system.

The U.S. has offered to sell Turkey the Patriot since the Obama administration, but would not share sensitive technology Turkey wants to be able to build its own weapons.

Risch called the idea that the U.S. wouldn’t sell Turkey the Patriot an “absolute lie.”

“Any statement by the Turks that we wouldn’t sell them the Patriot is an absolute lie,” Risch said, citing an October 2012 statement he and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) delivered to the Turks about the offer.

Tags Bob Menendez Donald Trump Jeanne Shaheen Jim Risch Missile defense system Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Ron Johnson Russia s-400 sanctions Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ted Cruz Tom Udall Turkey

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