By Ian Talley and Vivian Salama
WASHINGTON -- President Trump authorized sanctions and raised steel tariffs on Turkey, while threatening more-powerful financial penalties if Ankara continued a military offensive in northern Syria launched after Mr. Trump decided to withdraw U.S. troops from the region.
Mr. Trump also spoke separately with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Kurdish Commander Mazloum Abdi and urged them to negotiate an end to the violence, administration officials said. Mr. Trump, calling for an immediate ceasefire, tapped Vice President Mike Pence and White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien to lead a delegation to Turkey to seek a resolution to the conflict.
The administration's first punitive actions against Turkey and its effort to start talks came amid widespread criticism on Capitol Hill that Mr. Trump's decision left Kurdish militias that had aided the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State open to attack. Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican lawmakers said they plan to speed through their own sanctions package starting on Tuesday.
"I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey's economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path," Mr. Trump said on Monday. "Unfortunately, Turkey does not appear to be mitigating the humanitarian effects of its invasion."
Administration officials said Mr. Trump wouldn't be willing to send a delegation to Ankara on short notice if he didn't think a ceasefire was possible. They pushed back on the notion that the U.S. was responsible for the current chaos along the Turkish-Syrian border, insisting that Turkey alone is to blame.
Syrian military convoys moved on Monday into towns along the northern border with Turkey, emboldened by a newly forged accord with Kurdish authorities. Syrian soldiers raised the national flag in Ain Eissa, a town north of Raqqa -- Islamic State's former de facto capital -- where thousands of U.S.-backed fighters had trained at a military base.
The administration has signaled that the U.S. could start with sanctions that don't inflict much damage, but could then be ramped up to a level that would cripple the Turkish economy, including severing access to U.S. markets.
"The sanctions are ready when the president wants to move forward on them," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on CNBC earlier Monday, a day after he said the administration could levy its harshest tool: shutting all U.S.-dollar transactions with the Turkish government, as the U.S. has done with Iran and Venezuela, among others.
The sanctions the U.S. Treasury imposed on Monday target Turkey's Defense, Interior and Energy ministers and their departments. The U.S. warned that any person or business doing business with them risked also being blacklisted, including banks losing access to dollar markets. Mr. Trump also said that the U.S. would raise the tariff rate on steel imported from Turkey to 50%, after lowering the rate from that level back in May.
The Treasury said it would issue waivers to ensure sanctions didn't disrupt the entire country's energy needs, and will allow officials and contractors conducting business for the U.S. government to work with the blacklisted officials and offices.
The U.S. continued to withdraw military forces from front-line bases in northern Syria on Monday after evacuating U.S. diplomats overnight on Sunday, current and former administration officials said. Mr. Trump said Turkey's military incursion threatens to destabilize the region, risks jeopardizing a successful U.S. campaign against Islamic State and deepens a widespread humanitarian crisis, and sets the stage for possible war crimes.
The U.S. is "at risk of being engulfed in a broader conflict," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said. "Therefore, at the president's direction, the Department of Defense is executing a deliberate withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from northeast Syria."
"Turkey must immediately cease its unilateral offensive in northeast Syria and return to a dialogue with the United States on security" in the region to avoid suffering further sanctions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said late Monday.
Turkey's embassy in Washington didn't respond to requests for comment on the sanctions.
The administration's threat to use it most potent financial weapon -- banning Turkish banks from accessing the U.S. markets and the world's most important currency -- risks imposing much deeper damage on Turkey's economy than Monday's actions do. Mr. Trump also said the U.S. will halt negotiations on a potential $100 billion trade deal.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill said they are preparing legislation that could require the White House to impose tougher sanctions, fearing Mr. Trump may not follow through with his threats.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said she had spoken with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) about putting together a bipartisan, bicameral sanctions package that is stronger than what the White House is considering. Mr. Graham, a close ally of the president who has sharply criticized his decision to move troops out of northern Syria, echoed Mrs. Pelosi's statement and wrote in a tweet that he would move to "draft sanctions and move quickly."
After the planned Ankara talks were announced, Mr. Graham said he had joined Mr. Trump on the calls with leaders in the conflict and said officials should be given "reasonable time and space to achieve our mutual goals."
The U.S. began repositioning some 1,000 troops in northern Syria last week, and Turkish forces quickly moved into the area, battling Kurdish militia.
Mr. Trump said the forces being pulled out of northern Syria would be redeployed throughout the region, with a small contingent left in the southern Syrian garrison of Tanf.
Mr. Trump has come under intense criticism from lawmakers, including from his own party, for rejecting warnings that Ankara would likely prosecute a war against the Kurdish population in northern Syria if Washington pulled U.S. troops from the region.
Mr. Trump's previous expressions of a degree of sympathy toward Mr. Erdogan's decision to invade Syria have also fueled lawmakers' concerns. Many national-security experts, Trump critics and others fear the Turkish assault could result in large-scale civilian deaths and human-rights abuses, give Islamic State room to regain a footing and undermine years of U.S. efforts to break Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's grip on the country.
In tweets earlier Monday, Mr. Trump defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces, and that he didn't object to geopolitical foes of the U.S. stepping in. "Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!"
Turkey's government, banks and firms aren't the only entities at risk from U.S. sanctions. Other banks and businesses outside the country, including in the U.S. and Europe, could also face U.S. penalties under the sanction powers the administration said it is prepared to impose.
France's government over the weekend said it is suspending transfers of weapons and other military items that could be used by Turkey in its Syria offensive, according to a statement issued by the Defense Ministry. German media reported Berlin is doing the same.
Meanwhile, the European Union on Monday said it would set up a sanctions regime targeting companies and individuals involved in Turkey's "illegal drilling activity of hydrocarbons," after Turkey started offshore natural-gas-drilling activities off the coast of Cyprus this month.
Former senior U.S. Treasury officials say the White House could have long ago also levied hefty and damaging fines on a state-owned bank found to have facilitated billions of dollars of sanctions evasion during the previous administration's Iran pressure campaign, but has yet to act. The White House has also been criticized for deferring sanctions against Turkey for Ankara's purchase of Russia's S-400 missile-defense system. Weapons experts say that system could compromise U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization security.
Turkish markets appear to have been pricing in the risk of U.S. sanctions taking a toll on the economy. The lira's value against the dollar fell nearly 2% Monday from its high on Friday, when the administration unveiled plans for new Turkish sanctions.
--Alex Leary, Nancy A. Youssef and Andrew Duehren in Washington and Laurence Norman in Brussels contributed to this article.
Write to Ian Talley at firstname.lastname@example.org and Vivian Salama at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 14, 2019 21:00 ET (01:00 GMT)
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