President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered reciprocal actions against two US cabinet members, retaliating against a decision by the Trump administration to sanction Turkey’s Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu for the imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson. The Brunson case is just one issue polarizing US-Turkey relations. More than 50,000 people, including Brunson, are jailed for supporting terrorism after the botched coup attempt in July 2016. Three US consular officials are wrongly imprisoned for supporting terrorism. Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles violates NATO’s core principle of inter-operability. In addition, Erdogan helped Iran evade sanctions imposed to curtail its nuclear activities.
Erdogan also has grievances with the United States. He objects to US support for Kurds in Syria. He is incensed by Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of masterminding the coup. Erdogan condemns “ridiculous sanctions.” He maintains, “We have never bowed our heads to such pressure and will never do so.”
Smart sanctions are an instrument of diplomacy that can compel a change in Turkey’s behavior. The threat of sanctions is much more effective than sanctions themselves. If the Trump administration wants Turkey to change course, it should discreetly convey plans to impose sanctions on Erdogan’s family members — Bilal Erdogan, his “businessman” son, and Berat Albayrak, his son in-law and finance minister.
Both Bilal and Berat are involved in activities, which are actionable under the Global Magnitsky Act (Public Law 114-328). The Global Magnitsky Act, adopted by the US Congress in 2016, targets individuals who commit human rights violations or who are involved with corruption.
Bilal Erdogan has allegedly accrued enormous wealth through corrupt activities such as extortion, bribery, and money laundering. He has allegedly been involved in terrorist financing by transporting ISIS oil from Syria.
Wiretaps from the Istanbul Police Financial Crimes Department (17 and 25 December 2013) document millions of dollars in payments to Bilal from Turkish businesses who received rich contracts from the Turkish government. Bilal received funds in exchange for building or construction permits on behalf of companies such as Cengiz Insaat. He also extracted payments from SOM Oil in Turkey, an energy transport company, and Turang Energy, which operates a natural gas pipeline from Iran. He was given a villa valued at $1.75 million from a company called Belvey, which allegedly launders bribes to the Erdogan family.
On 17 December 2013, Bilal was recorded by the Istanbul Police Financial Crimes Investigation Department, speaking to his father about disposing of ill-gotten gains hidden in the basement of his home. Erdogan told his son to get rid of the cash, which exceeded $1 billion, according to leaked phone transcripts. Erdogan told Berat Albayrak to coordinate disposal of the funds. Trucks physically removed the money from Bilal’s home and moved it to four different locations.
Berat Albayrak is also liable under the Global Magnitsky Act for his alleged role in criminal activities, corruption, including the expropriation of private and public assets for personal gain, bribery, and corruption related to government contracts and natural resources.
Berat has played a major role in Turkey’s systematic attack on independent media.
He organized the take-over of Sabah-ATV group by Calik Holdings, where he served as Chief Executive Officer until 2013. The $1.1 billion acquisition was financed by Turkish state banks, Halkbank and Vakifbank. Sabah was subsequently sold to Turkuvaz Medya Group, which is owned by Cemal Kalyoncu and run by Berat’s brother. Kalyoncu received billions of dollars in construction contracts from the Turkish government, including a contract to build Istanbul’s new airport.
According to police phone intercepts, Berat proposed to dispose of Bilal’s funds by purchasing properties in the upscale Sehrizar Villas Project. Public records show that eight villas were purchased in cash by Berat.
Intercepts of phone conversations confirm Berat’s role arranging the sale of ISIS oil from Iraq and Syria through Powertrans, an energy transport company, beginning in 2011.
Both Bilal and Berat solicited funds from Turkish businesses and organized crime for Islamist charities, such as TUR-GEV, Ensar Foundation, and Maarif Foundation in exchange for government contracts. Reza Zarrab, who pleaded guilty in a US court to money laundering on behalf of Iran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, contributed $4.65 million to TOGEM-DER, a charity founded by Erdogan’s wife.
Zarrab also assisted TUR-GEV to raise funds from the illegal acquisition of land, properties, and other assets.
The Trump administration used the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction Abdulhamit Gul and Suleyman Soylu. Gul and Soylu are functionaries who mean nothing to Erdogan. They are expendable.
The threat of sanctions against Bilal and Berat will get Erdogan’s attention. Erdogan is a pragmatist who, faced with Magnitsky Act sanctions against his family, may adjust Turkey’s policies, putting US-Turkey relations back on track.