"A year after establishing a superpresidential system that strengthened his personal control at the expense of democratic checks and balances, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is floundering in crises of his own making. The economy is teetering on the brink of collapse. The opposition is emboldened after significant wins in local elections, including a decisive victory in a rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election in June. Relative moderates who have been driven from the president’s party by his consolidation of power are finally taking steps to form a new party on the center-right.
Turkish foreign policy is also a sea of troubles. The war in Syria has been a catastrophe, and Ankara’s involvement there has become a matter of salvaging some small leverage in the final settlement. Frustrated with US policy in Syria, and blaming the United States for the July 2016 coup attempt, Turkey’s leadership has taken delivery of an S-400 air defense system from Russia. As relations with the European Union also reach new lows, the country is engaging in increasingly heated competition over offshore gas reserves near Cyprus, an EU member state.
A year ago, Freedom House warned that the United States had to 'prepare for the possibility that Turkey under Erdoğan is pursuing a durable strategic realignment.'[i] There is still a long way to go before Turkey irreparably breaks with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or switches fully to backing Russian interests in its region. But this year’s events show that it has already embraced a 'more neutrally aligned foreign policy,' as Aaron Stein has called it with some understatement.[ii]
The delivery of the S-400 in July is a milestone. The United States must decide how hard and how fast to push back in response to Turkey’s realignment, at a time when Erdoğan’s grip on domestic politics is looking weaker than it has in years. Reasonable voices have called for the United States to slow down and wait for the dust to settle on Turkey’s internal crises before taking punitive steps that could degrade the relationship further.[iii] Few analysts still argue that Erdoğan himself will change tack, but the implied hope is that a new balance of power in Turkey could bring the country back toward its traditional alignment with Washington.
The dilemma for the United States is that significant competition with Russia (and to some extent China) in Southeastern Europe does not allow for time to wait and see how or whether Erdoğan navigates these crises. He is damaged politically, but his institutional position as president remains ironclad, and he holds more than enough cards to stay in power until the next elections in 2023, and potentially well beyond that. After two years of warnings, the S-400 delivery marks a moment when the United States has to take a clear stand against allies’ security cooperation with authoritarian Russia. It cannot bet on a change in power or a change of heart in Ankara."
In brief, Freedom House has outlined four sanction guidelines: delay, soft pedal, middle of the road, and "nuclear." Within each section are descriptions of how these sanctions would look applied to Turkey and the implications they would have for U.S.-Turkey relations. Since President Biden's election in 2020, Erdoğan has been kept at a distance from the U.S., but the West still continues to appease Turkey's wishes to maintain their NATO alliance. Sanctions would not only curb some of the mostly unbridled power exercised by Erdoğan and his AKP government but would promote Western values in the face of Turkey's worrisome relationship with Russia.