COMMENTARY — Why US sanctions against the Erdoğan regime must be expanded

By Abdullah Bozkurt

Not only the average Turk but many in the Turkish government and the ruling Justice and Development Party welcome targeted sanctions by the United States that are aimed at delegitimizing hard-core elements within the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, even if they are afraid of freely speaking their mind because of intimidation and the risk of imprisonment.

The key in securing the desired result from targeted sanctions is to calibrate them carefully and impose them in the right way so that they will directly hit people who are considered responsible for the major backslide in Turkey’s democracy. Those who still present huge obstacles to putting the country on the right track must be singled out in order to make room for reasonable policy makers to maneuver. An additional goal is to also force a change in the destabilizing behavior of the current government and minimize damage to the nation while encouraging those who are in power or in opposition but want to work with allies, partners and the international community as rational nation-state actors.

Turkish politics entered into a new phase after the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took action on Aug. 1 targeting Turkey’s Minister of Justice Abdülhamit Gül and Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu for their apparent role in serious human rights violations, including the lengthy imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson, in line with the Magnitsky Act, which aims to punish these people by blocking their assets. The move, unprecedented in the history of US-Turkish relations, carries significant weight and symbolizes how troubled relations between the two allies took a nosedive under hostile policies pursued by an Islamist Turkish president who is bent on destroying the nation’s hard-fought accomplishments in democracy and national security.

Although both ministers have downplayed the designations by claiming they have no assets in the US, the sanctions have far-reaching implications other than merely freezing assets or prohibiting Americans from engaging in transactions with these two ministers, who may have little or no exposure financially. Most of all, the designation would delegitimize two people whose portfolios cover important government functions in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

Through these two tools the Erdoğan regime has been persecuting its critics, opponents and dissidents under fabricated terror, espionage and coup plotting charges. The official narrative of the Turkish government especially on the battle against what it calls terrorism has been dealt a serious blow with such designations by the US government. Dubious charges leveled not only against American citizens but also all others ranging from the Gülen movement to the Kurdish political movement were clearly exposed.

Targeted sanctions is a smart move as it would suggest the US is not opposed to Turkey, a country for which the US-led NATO alliance had provided protection against the threat of the Soviet Union for six decades during the Cold War and to which it transferred technology and knowhow for its industrial base and helped financially stay afloat in difficult times.

The Erdoğan regime has apparently taken for granted the strategic benefits of anchoring Turkey to the transatlantic alliance. Perhaps Erdoğan cares less for it given how his personal troubles from corruption to aiding and abetting jihadist militant groups in Syria left him no graceful exit strategy from politics. He has to cling to power at all costs including throwing the country’s interests under the bus to save himself and his family members.

That is where the targeted sanctions are urgently needed. Any person, entity, organization or company involved in shoring up his regime in exchange for petty interests and lucrative contracts must be made aware of the huge costs of aligning with Erdoğan in his relentless pursuit of transforming Turkish democracy into a rogue nation ruled by a dictatorship. The sanctioning of two Turkish ministers, one an ultranationalist and the other an Islamist politician, is important but not enough considering they do not have significant sway within the party and serve merely as functionaries just like any other pawn the Turkish president uses in his dirty games.

The real blow that will eat away at his armor will come when his son-in law Berat Albayrak — who effectively serves as number two in the Cabinet and shapes the policies of the Turkish government from finances to foreign policy – gets slapped with sanctions. Bilal Erdoğan, Erdoğan’s son, who oversees the radicalization of Turkish youth and is engaged in exporting of his father’s brand of political Islam abroad, and Selçuk Bayraktar, Erdoğan’s other son-in-law who is helping build the military industrial complex for his father-in-law, represent two important targets that would surely rattle Erdoğan if they were to be blacklisted by the US.

Beyond the family enterprise, business associates who support Erdoğan’s crony capitalist regime in exchange for lucrative government contracts and tenders could be fair game in targeted sanctions if the US really wants to send a message to this corrupt government. Businesspeople who fatten their wallets in unlawful asset seizures and enrich themselves and Erdoğan in forced wealth redistribution must realize the costs of committing themselves to such a path.

In the security and intelligence field, Hakan Fidan, a pro-Iranian spy who was entrusted with running the Turkish intelligence apparatus and often schemes and plots against Turkey’s allies and Erdoğan’s domestic enemies, presents a major target that ought to be hit with sanctions. Hulusi Akar, the defense minister, and Yaşar Güler, the current chief of general staff, must be held accountable for their role in facilitating the purge of NATO and pro-Western officers in large numbers in the alliance’s second largest army in terms of manpower. At Erdoğan’s urging, they have considerably weakened NATO’s southern flank.

Perhaps the various dynamics at play within the Turkish state will eventually bring the realization that Erdoğan has become an increasing liability for Turkey and must be neutralized and sidelined to protect the country’s long-term interests. Naming and shaming the Erdoğan regime matters in great deal even if Erdoğan would like to use this as an opportunity to mobilize Turks and consolidate his standing. He may shift the blame to the US for the troubled economy. He has done this before on numerous occasions, scapegoating the US for his own failures.

In the absence of any domestic or international accountability, Erdoğan has already done what he would have done under a sanctions regime. Therefore, there is no point in arguing that this will play into Erdoğan’s hands, which were already holding most of the cards in Turkey before the sanctions kicked in anyway. At least allies now have a chance to influence the game and take initiatives to pressure the government in Turkey and marginalize the hardliners in his government.

The US must be able to expand the sanctions regime by bringing more allies and partners into the mix, turn them into multilateral measures and hopefully prompting United Nation mechanisms into robust action. The serious human rights violations have already been recorded by most UN monitoring mechanisms, and Turkey has little credit to call in favors there given how the Erdoğan regime has managed to irritate many countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe with its meddlesome policies and harsh rhetoric. If more countries join the US in taking action against Turkey, whose economy is very much dependent on foreign investment, trade and business, this would increase the effectiveness of the sanctions.

The US must be able to use a mixture of both an incremental and a shock-and-awe approach to maximize the effect of the targeted sanctions. Erdoğan is not a man who plays by the book and often comes up with unexpected countermoves and can very well take it to the edge when pushed. Therefore, asymmetric policies that use a phased-in sanctions regime while taking immediate action when needed will shock Erdoğan, rattle his supporters and catch them off guard. The US made it unequivocally clear that the sanctions, initially targeting a core group, may very well expand to include those in support groups. This could dissuade many who initially felt they could weather the storm and continue deriving benefits from the oppressive regime.

One missing element in this game of brinkmanship is how to publicize the measures and explain to the Turkish public what the US and other allies aim to do. After all, it would be up to the media to publicize and play a role in naming and shaming the Erdoğan government. Since Erdoğan has killed most of the independent, critical and opposition media in Turkey by seizing nearly 200 media outlets and jailing 240 journalists since 2016, there is no serious media left in Turkey to convey and amplify the message for Turks.

The very few remaining are either nationalist, anti-Western or ethnic-based outlets that pursue conflicted editorial lines and have a very limited reach. There are several Turkish media outlets run by exiled journalists, but they have quite limited financial and logistical resources and restricted access to Turkey. Perhaps just like during the Cold War era, the US and allies can help support the opposition media and equip them with technology to cut through the obstacles the Erdoğan government is using to suppress the flow of free information.

The time is another crucial factor in the effectiveness of the sanctions regime. The US and allies have already lost valuable time since Erdoğan was caught in major corruption schemes in 2013 that involved aiding and abetting Iran to bypass sanctions while empowering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). That is when he seriously started to take Turkey away from the transatlantic alliance. While any move must be decisive, it also requires swiftness in order to deprive Erdoğan of adequate time to muster a response. It can be argued that he will try to push Turkey toward instability with a view to surviving amid chaos when push comes to shove.

The track record suggests he can even make a deal with the devil like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or DAESH) for contract killings in Turkey to achieve political goals and invite international sympathy. If he gets exposed for what he is, there will be fewer people to buy into his narrative. At the same time, a series of legal actions against Erdoğan’s proponents and operatives must be launched to prevent him from having operational capability in such clandestine operations. Ultimately, the policy objective is to undermine the Erdoğan’s regime ability to pursue policies that are at odds with Turkey and its allies’ long-term interests. (

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