Scrambling to limit damage, Trump hits Turkey with tariffs over Syria

US President Donald Trump addresses conservative activists at the Family Research Council's annual gala in Washington DC on Oct 12, 2019.
US President Donald Trump addresses conservative activists at the Family Research Council's annual gala in Washington DC on Oct 12, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump on Monday (Oct 14) raised steel tariffs on Turkey and threatened more sanctions over its incursion into Syria as he scrambled to limit the damage from his much-criticised decision to clear US troops from Turkey’s path.

With lawmakers in the US Congress moving to impose sanctions of their own, Trump announced he would soon issue an executive order authorising sanctions against current and former officials of the Turkish government for contributing to Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria.

In a statement, Trump said he had increased tariffs on imports of Turkish steel back up to 50 per cent, six months after they were reduced, and would immediately stop negotiations on what he called a US$100 billion (S$136.9 billion) trade deal with Turkey.

"Unfortunately, Turkey does not appear to be mitigating the humanitarian effects of its invasion," said Trump.

Turkey launched a cross-border operation into northern Syria a week ago after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told Trump in a phone call he planned to move ahead with a long-planned move against America’s Kurdish allies in the region.

Trump abruptly announced a redeployment of 50 American troops from the conflict zone to get them out of harm’s way, dismissing criticism that this would leave the Kurds open to attack.

This was widely seen as giving Erdogan a green light for his operation. The resulting scenes of carnage have exposed Trump to harsh criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for abandoning the Kurdish allies who were instrumental in the US battle against Islamic State militants in Syria.

As Congress has vowed to act if he will not, Trump said Turkey’s action is precipitating a humanitarian crisis and "setting conditions for possible war crimes" but he made clear he had no plans to reverse his decision to withdraw.

"As I have said, I am withdrawing the remaining United States service members from north-east Syria," said Trump.

US troops coming out of Syria will stay in the region to monitor the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a small footprint will remain at the Tanf base in southern Syria, he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican allied with Trump, expressed his displeasure in a statement.

"Abandoning this fight now and withdrawing US forces from Syria would recreate the very conditions that we have worked hard to destroy and invite the resurgence of ISIS," he said.

 
 
 

A statement from Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic senators Robert Menendez and Jack Reed said the only person who is able to "immediately stop this tragedy unfolding is the president himself."

"The first step when Congress returns to session this week is for Republicans to join with us in passing a resolution making clear that both parties are demanding the president’s decision be reversed," they said.

However, a US official said on Monday a diplomatic team working to help stabilise territory captured from ISIS had already pulled out.

US troops were still on the ground but early phases of their withdrawal had started, the official said.

Two other US officials have told Reuters the bulk of the US pullout could be completed within days.

The Trump administration has denied its troop pullback triggered the Turkish incursion.

"I can tell you with complete confidence that nothing that we did one way or the other was going to deter the Turks from what they wanted to do," a senior Trump administration official said.

Trump said his executive order would enable the United States to impose sanctions on those current or former Turkish officials who may be involved in human rights abuses.

He said it will authorise sanctions such as blocking of property and barring entry into the United States.

Turkey’s lira, which had weakened some 0.8 per cent in the day, reacted minimally to Trump’s announcement. It stood at 5.9300 at 2018 GMT, from 5.9260 beforehand.