How the U.S. Lost Its Game of Chicken with Turkey

Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Alexandros Michailidis /via Shutterstock)

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.

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  1. The writer is probably correct in all his statements, but it is not only Turkey who now understands that the Russian system of defense is better than the US version, and also surely people now know the F-35 is not something to be proud of!
    Buying a proven better product is not just to “spite” the USA. The US assumption that it is always better, and that NATO is under its control so all the members must obey its demands, needs to be rethought. NATO, after all, is no longer needed as the USSR no longer exists. Calling Russia an adversary is a choice, and not a good one. Try some negotiations with Russia. Give peace a chance!!!

  2. Turkey has it’s own very unique interests. These are dynamic, and complex. Engaging Russia is not a option, but essential. US has badly misjudged Erdogan and Turkey. US sees Turkish actions with a very different US perspective. US must understand that Turkey, like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region, simply will not always follow national interests that are compatible with ours. Turkey did this back in 2003 by denying the US 4th infantry Division access to Iraq during the US invasion. Turkey facilitated the takeover of the Syrian revolution in 2013-4 by ISIS. Turkey still sustains them today, 2019, in Idlib. Lets see how they sort out Idlib with their new BFF Russia.

  3. Only countries like Hungary and Poland, plus eventually another one like Ukraine are still ready to ‘obey’ U.S. security guidance… Among U.S. ‘Allies’ Turkey is already franchised as is Europe for a while.
    With Europe, the process is still evolving towards more serious confrontations coming with Boris Johnson elected as British PM linked with an eventual Trump reelection. All of this without even mentioning the ruminating stance by countries such as Mexico and Canada. The chicken looks not ready to be corralled…

  4. Oh please mr Murat, the US hasnt lost any game oc chicken yet because the game is not over. And mr Murat, in USA we say that it ant over until the fat lady sings. In this case the fat lady is USA and hasnt sang yet. Wait until it starts singing and then we will see how your fellow country-men will start dancing. If Putin van make Erdogan go crawling in Russia begging for forgiveness, imagine what the West can do to Turkey since both US and EU had enough and are ready to apply some pain.

  5. Rosemerry

    AKP sings a song of Islamic Authenticity, Justice, and Progress.

    But, in practice, its foriegn policy has been to destroy the lives and livelihoods of those Muslims allied to Iran.

    And this from a party whose ideas has had the closest historical affinity to those of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

    Saudis & Salafis are one end of the Sunni Islam’s system of ideas and AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood are the other end. Neither end is capable of moving Sunni Muslims forward. And in practic, they both turnec out to be enemies of the Party of Ali.

    For this and similar conclusions, I am led to believe that the best path forward for Iran and the members of her Alliance System is to concentrate on themselves. Leave the Sunnis to their own devices.

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