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US House serves blow to Turkey with votes on sanctions in connection with Turkey’s military incursion into Syria & Armenian genocide

American lawmakers voted on Tuesday to pass two unprecedented resolutions against Turkey amid already heightened tensions. The House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide and a second bill imposing sanctions in connection with Turkey’s military incursion into Syria and demanding to know Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s net worth.

The Protect Against Conflict by Turkey Act (PACT) imposes sanctions on Turkish officials, including Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, connected to Operation Peace Spring – the military offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The resolution also calls for sanctions on Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank and any financial institutions that facilitated transactions to the armed forces or Turkey’s defence industry for the invasion.

The bill also asks for reports submitted within 120 days on “the net worth of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his family” and the impact Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria has had on US national security.

The bipartisan bill passed with 403 votes to 16 and is a rebuke of US President Donald Trump who gave Erdogan the green light to launch the offensive.

The attack, launched on October 9, displaced an estimated 300,000 people and killed 130 civilians, according to conflict monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Syrian militias supported by Turkey are accused of war crimes ,  including the summary execution of a politician, targeting health workers and facilities, and desecrating the bodies of killed fighters.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have abided by agreements made by the United States and Russia, pulling their forces away from the border, but continue their calls for international monitoring of the border area because of fears Turkey will carry out ethnic cleansing of the Kurds and demographic change by resettling one to two million Syrian refugees who hail from other parts of Syria and are now sheltering in Turkey.

Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey on October 14, but lifted them nine days later after Ankara committed to a ceasefire.

Congressman Eliot Engel, who introduced the bill, said it “underscores the devastating consequences of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria & Trump’s decision to let it happen. It employs sanctions to incentivize Erdogan to stop his military offensive, cease violence against Syrian Kurdish communities & withdraw from Syria.”

Ilham Ehmed, head of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, welcomed the vote with a reference to a well-known Kurdish proverb: “The Kurds have friends more than the mountains, they have the US congress. Thanks for passing the bill to impose sanctions on Turkey.”

Ehmed frequently visits Washington and meets with senior American officials.

Turkey condemned the adoption of the bill and accused the United States of “carelessly legitimizing a terrorist,” referring to the Kurdish forces of Syria which Ankara considers a terror organization.

The bill “is incompatible with the spirit of our NATO Alliance, and contradicts with [sic] the agreement reached on Syria with the US Administration on 17 October,” read a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, adding that nothing will be achieved with the threat of sanctions.

The bill must now pass through the Republican-controlled Senate and, if passed, would then be put before the president. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that is not likely to happen at the moment. “We need to think extremely carefully before we employ the same tools against a democratic NATO ally that we would against the worst rogue states,” he said.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a vocal supporter of America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria, tweeted that the Senate is ready to take up the House bill and “let Turkey unequivocally know that the United States will not sit on the sidelines as they create problems for us and our allies.”

“Erdogan created this mess and he needs to fix it,” Graham added. “Congress is intent on standing by the Kurds and SDF forces who heled us destroy ISIS against Turkish aggression.”

The second bill passed by the House recognizes the Armenian genocide. At least 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

“Too often, tragically, the truth of this staggering crime has been denied,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in the House on Tuesday. “Today let us clearly state the facts on the floor of this house to be etched forever into the Congressional record the barbarism committed against the Armenian people was a genocide.”

The resolution, which states the US will commemorate the genocide and reject association with efforts to deny the genocide passed with cheers in a 405 to 11 vote.

The Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan welcomed the vote as a “bold step towards serving truth and historical justice that also offers comfort to millions of descendants of the Armenian Genocide survivors.”

Armenia’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan said the “tribute” to the Armenian victims is an act of empowerment “to work anew for prevention of mass atrocities anywhere in the world.”

Turkey admits that mass deaths occurred, but refuses to call it a genocide and condemned the House vote. “The resolution which has apparently been drafted and issued for domestic consumption is devoid of any historical or legal basis,” read a statement from Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that draws a direct link between the Armenian genocide vote and Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria.

“Those who felt defeated for not being able to forestall Operation Peace Spring would be highly mistaken should they thought [sic] that they could take vengeance this way,” the statement read.

The ministry points out that the resolution is not legally binding.

Header image: A member of the Kurdish internal security services (Asayesh) stands guard during a demonstration by Syrian Kurds against the Turkish assault on northeastern Syria in Qamishli on October 28, 2019. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP