WASHINGTON ― Amid a bipartisan call for the Senate to take up a Turkey sanctions bill that overwhelmingly passed the House this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has doubled down on his opposition to broad action against the NATO ally, warning it might cause economic damage and alienate the Turkish people.
The sanctions bill the House passed Tuesday in a vote of 403-16 is one of several measures under consideration to punish Turkey for its incursion into northeastern Syria and attacks on Kurdish fighters, whom the U.S. supported to fight the Islamic State group. Those bills and the House’s passage of a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide are the latest signs of a U.S.-Turkey relationship in crisis.
“I’ve spoken at length about my concerns on Turkey’s incursion and my opposition to withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, but I believe we need to be guided by our strategic interests, not emotions, as we seek to contain the damage of Turkey’s incursion, peel Ankara away from Moscow and urge better behavior abroad by Erdogan’s government,” McConnell, R-Ky., said in a Senate floor speech Thursday.
“I hope we will carefully examine whether a broad mandatory sanctions bill is really the best solution,” he added, echoing a speech he made Oct. 22, before the House passed its bill.
McConnell suggested that broad sanctions on Turkey ― which is experiencing a surge in anti-American sentiment and is the European Union’s fifth-largest trading partner ― might backfire. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is widely seen as drifting away from the United States, instead finding common ground with Russia and Iran.
A key gatekeeper for what legislation reaches the Senate floor, McConnell has both practical and political considerations. While several members of McConnell’s caucus are seeking some sort of rebuke to Turkey, he has mostly resisted legislation that might embarrass President Donald Trump. Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria was criticized as a green light for the Turkish incursion, and Trump is set to host Erdogan at the White House on Nov. 13 after threatening and then withdrawing his own sanctions.
The House-passed bill, from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and ranking member Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, would bar most U.S. weapons sales to Turkey and slap sanctions on foreigners attempting to send the Turks military equipment. It would also block high-ranking Turkish officials from their assets in the U.S. and restrict their travel.
The bill its meant to incentivize Turkey to comply with its cease-fire with the Syrian Kurds, as it allows Trump to waive sanctions if Turkey halts its attacks against groups in Syria.
The authors of one of the Senate’s sanctions bills, Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have been campaigning, amid uncertainty about their measure, for the upper chamber to take up the House bill. “We are pushing very hard to get a vote in the United States Senate on a bill that would impose sanctions on Turkey for its attacks on the Syrian Kurds,” The Hill quoted Van Hollen as saying Thursday.
Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, has sponsored a bill with the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez, which he speculated would get a near-unanimous vote in committee. Risch this week, however, did not commit to take up either bill in his committee.
Lawmakers other than McConnell have expressed skepticism about sanctions, including two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said sanctions “could give Congress the sense that it has done something without actually changing the reality on the ground,” and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told Fox News Radio he supports withholding arms sales to Turkey but argued sanctions “hurt people” and could “turn the people against America.”
McConnell said he is open to sanctions legislation of some sort, but that the Senate’s Banking and Finance committees must be involved. On Thursday, he said he wants more input from allies and more information about the potential impact on the economies of Turkey, the U.S., Europe, and their “workers and job creators.”
“Before using these kind of policy tools, the kind we use against Iran and North Korea against a democracy of 80 million people, we should consider the political impact that blunt sanctions will have on the Turkish people,” McConnell said. “Will sanctions rally them to our cause or to Erdogan’s? Will more targeted sanctions perhaps avoid some of these unintended consequences?”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.