by Murat Yesiltas
Now that Turkey has taken delivery of the first part of its new Russian-made S-400 air defense system, we can say that the United States has lost the game of “chicken” it was playing with Ankara.
Turkey has now become the first NATO country to procure a strategic weapons platform from Russia, despite intense U.S. objections. Many U.S. institutions, including the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and Congress, spent more than two years trying to dissuade Turkey from purchasing the system. While NATO treats Russia as a strategic threat, Turkey, a NATO member, has made a deal with Russia to satisfy its national security interests. For Russia the benefits are twofold: it has now entered NATO’s defense market and precipitated a rupture in the transatlantic alliance.
The S-400 and Its Repercussions
By insisting on the Russian S-400 system, which is known to be incompatible with NATO security and defense requirements, Ankara has strengthened its relationship with Moscow. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly underlined that Turkey and Russia would advance defense cooperation by working on co-produced alternatives of the S-400 rockets. He also stressed many times that Turkey would eventually acquire the next generation S-500 Russian-made air defense missile system. Erdogan had described Ankara’s S-400 purchase as one of the most essential defense agreements that Turkey has ever signed. He clearly regards it as something more important than just a simple arms acquisition.
In addition to geopolitical concerns, Turkey must maintain a good working relationship with Russia because of Turkey’s objectives in Syria. Two issues in Syria are critical for Turkey: the fight against the Kurdish YPG militia—which is linked with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria and the Turkish military presence in Syria’s Idlib province. Turkey is not dependent on Russia in Syria, but it does need to manage its relationships with both Russia and the U.S. in order to facilitate its operations there.
As far as the U.S. is concerned, Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 system has triggered the risk of sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). In order to maintain, upgrade, and effectively operate the delivered S-400 systems, Ankara will need to continue transacting with Russia, which is likely to result in a spiral effect of CAATSA sanctions against Turkey. Already, Ankara is facing exclusion from the F-35 fighter jet program, which includes not only the cancellation of Turkey’s F-35 purchase but also the removal of Turkish defense companies from the F-35 production processes. That removal could cost those firms billions of dollars in revenue.
President Trump’s options are constrained by the legal framework of CAATSA. Even if he intends to waive sanctions for national security reasons, Congress, with bipartisan support, could override him and impose sanctions anyway. This would eventually triggering a Turkish counter-move against the U.S. Given the institutional opposition toward Turkey in Washington at the moment, it is not difficult to predict that President Trump will soon be forced to change his position and support sanctions. This could pave the way to potential Turkish responses that will deepen the rift in Turkey-U.S. relations.
Turkish leaders have stressed that Turkey’s geopolitical vision remains the same in terms of its relations with the rest of NATO. Nevertheless, it seems that the Turkey-U.S. is deteriorating, not only due to Ankara’s recent strategic defense purchase but also due to several other foreign and security policy disagreements between Ankara and Washington over regional issues in the Middle East.
Strategic U.S. Miscalculations
How have we arrived at this point? The breakdown in the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. isn’t only about a single weapons system. It also involves several U.S. miscalculations about Turkish security aims.
The first and most crucial of this miscalculations involve’s Washington’s misinterpretation of a shift in Turkish foreign policy thinking. Ever since the Arab Spring erupted in 2011 and the Syrian civil war became regionalized, Turkey has gradually adopted a military-driven security policy in its near abroad, particularly in Syria.
At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Turkey and the U.S. shared the same strategic objectives regarding the future of Syria. Both aimed to undermine the Assad regime to reshape Syria in the regional geopolitical landscape. Both countries have failed to achieve their strategic objectives because they misread the Syrian uprising. Once Iran and especially Russia got involved, U.S. and Turkish goals diverged. Turkey tried to avoid the spillover effects of the civil war, while the U.S. shifted its policy following the emergence of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS). The U.S. effort to counter ISIS created many tactical, operational, and long-term strategic challenges for Turkey’s national security and regional policies, particularly due to the U.S. alliance with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which has strong ties with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey had to counter the PKK’s urban insurgency in Turkey while the U.S. was supporting the PKK’s Syrian affiliate. This eventually undermined Turkey’s national security interests across the region.
Following Turkey’s July 2016 military coup attempt, Ankara’s perception of U.S. foreign policy changed. Not only was the U.S. was supporting the YPG, which has ties to the PKK, but it also did not support Ankara either by condemning the coup plotters or cooperating in the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the man Turkish authorities believe planned the coup. Russia, however was there to offer Turkey the S-400 systems, even after a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft along the Turkey-Syria border in November 2015.
The second U.S. miscalculation was making a false analogy between Turkey’s attitude in 2015 regarding its attempted purchase of China’s FD 2000 (HQ) air defense missile system and its decision to purchase the S-400 in 2017. Washington believed that Turkey would cancel the S-400 deal as it did in the case of the Chinese system, because of the interoperability problem and NATO’s possible reaction. However, Turkey canceled the FD 2000 long-range missile defense system contract in order to launch its own national air defense missile project. Furthermore, Ankara came to the conclusion that the Chinese system was not combat-proven and competitive, and the offer lacked technology transfer. More importantly, Turkey decided to purchase the S-400 in a much different geopolitical environment, both in terms of its relations with the U.S. and Russia and the regional security landscape.
The third U.S. miscalculation was the belief that there was some disparity among Turkish state institutions regarding the S-400 acquisition. However, this belief was not correct. Even though the Turkish security establishment had some concerns over the potential geopolitical rift between Ankara and Moscow vis-à-vis different foreign policy issues, these worries were not perceived as a strategic challenge as compared to the harm that U.S. policies were doing to Turkish national security.
Since 2003, the U.S. has gradually lost its reliability as a strategic security partner for Turkey. The S-400 purchase happened in part because multiple Turkish state institutions shared the same perception. In addition to the commonalities regarding S-400, the threat perception of the statecraft was also the same in regards to the US’s Syrian policy. The US government failed to see the impact that changes in U.S. strategy have had on Turkish thinking. Rather than understanding Turkey’s security concerns, the U.S., especially Congress, deepened Turkey’s security risks by framing Turkey as a challenger, not an ally.
Punishing Turkey through legislation is not and will never be a smart strategy. In fact, it is a strategic mistake that will eventually push Turkey towards further alignment with Russia. The U.S. has already lost its game of “chicken” with Turkey over the S-400. It is time for U.S. institutions to reconsider their approach toward Turkey and try to understand the changing dynamics of Turkish foreign policy and security considerations.
Dr. Murat Yesiltas is the director of Security Studies at the SETA Foundation in Ankara.