Trump’s response to Turkey’s S400 deal reflects U.S. interests


Leaks reported by the Washington Post have put to rest any question of whether U.S. President Donald Trump would seek a means to delay sanctions or lessen their impact on Turkey in response to the arrival of Russian S400 missile components in Ankara.  

Contrary to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision making, Trump appears focused on doing what is best for his country’s interest.  The Washington Post report reveals a decision to do the best for U.S. interests, not to satisfy the desire of many members of Congress to punish Turkey.  

The Washington Post reported on July 24 that Trump and some friendly Republican senators disagreed over next steps regarding applying sanctions against Turkey in response to its decision to proceed with the acquisition of the S400s. Citing anonymous sources present at the discussions at the White House, as well as some identified participants or their spokespersons, the Post portrays Trump “at odds” with Republican senators.  This is highly unlikely.

More likely, the White House wanted to publicise the portrayal of Trump as trying to find ways to lessen the impact or even waive entirely sanctions against Turkey, fulfilling a promise Erdogan claims Trump made to him at the G20. Keep in mind that apparent leaks are often part of the public relations or diplomatic engagement strategy of the executive and a means to test how others will respond to a strategy or a means to send a message informally and unofficially.

If these so-called leaks were of this kind, then Trump is sending Erdogan a message that he will try to blunt sanctions against Turkey. This does not signal satisfaction or happiness with Erdogan’s decision, but a realisation that punitive sanctions against Turkey at this time would not be in the strategic interests of the United States.  

How so?  

Severe sanctions that would cripple or severely harm the Turkish economy would serve to tighten its links to Russia, and China, and potentially cause serious damage to U.S. interests. Severe economic sanctions could tip the Turkish economy into a downward spiral, increasing instability in the greater Middle East, certainly against U.S. interests.  

The anti-Western and anti-American voices among the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its nationalist coalition party allies would see confirmation for their arguments that Turkey should turn its back on the West and liberal democracy, unhelpful to the approximate half of the population that still sees liberal democratic and prosperous governance models as more attractive than Iranian, Russia, Chinese models.

Punitive sanctions might lead to reduced military cooperation between Turkey and the United States. While none of the bases or facilities in Turkey are absolutely essential for Washington to pursue its interests in the greater Middle East, losing access to those facilities would force the United States to use other less convenient facilities and incur not insignificant expenses. It may come to that, eventually, and the United States should seriously examine other options, but for now and the immediate future, losing the use of Turkish bases and facilities would not serve U.S. interests.  

The United States continues to pursue an aggressive sanctions regime against Iran, apparently with some success given the reaction of Tehran in recent weeks. Punitive sanctions against Turkey would likely undercut efforts to persuade Turkey to continue respecting the anti-Iran sanctions regime – if facing punitive sanctions over Russian S400s, what is there to lose by violating financial sanctions on Iran? Losing leverage over Turkey’s relations with Iran is not in U.S. interests.  

Likewise, U.S. efforts against the remnants of Islamic State in northern Syria and ongoing negotiations with Turkey about a safe zone there could be adversely affected by punitive sanctions.  

Punitive sanctions might make some senators and foreign policy pundits feel good about standing up to Erdogan on something since there is little they can do about his misconduct on human rights, especially freedom of the press, and his drift towards Islamist-friendly authoritarianism, but it would be overkill and counter-productive. Is Erdogan likely to respond in a positive manner to American entreaties on press freedom while suffering from punitive sanctions?

Suspending or expelling Turkey from the F35 programme sharply rebukes Turkey for its cozying up to Russia, and it will cost the defence industry plenty, both economically and in access to needed expertise. The savings realised from not buying the F35s will likely be offset by the losses to be incurred from not participating in the programme.  Job losses may occur. Erdogan will try to blame the United States for those job losses; punitive sanctions would help confirm that blame effort. 

Suspension from the F35 programme and its impacts reminds Erdogan that being a member of NATO comes with certain expectations, especially regarding the acquisition of equipment designed for use against the military assets of its treaty allies.  Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu may see the suspension of Turkey from the F35 programme as an act counter to alliance solidarity, but Turkey’s military and its defence industry leadership know that it is the other way round, that suspension from the F35 programme was the least to expect for Turkey’s breaking solidarity with its allies. 

One must also note that U.S. defence company Lockheed-Martin is not worried about finding other buyers for the planes Turkey has ordered but will now not receive. This will blunt the desire for many senators from states with facilities participating in the F35 programme to punish Turkey – as long as sales, and the accompanying jobs, remain, no need to be vindictive.  

Finally, upon careful reflection, the U.S. military is likely content with expelling Turkey from the F35 programme, or even relieved. Certainly there are military leaders who wish to “make Turkey pay” for acquiring the S400s and other affronts or perceived affronts going back to Turkey’s 2003 refusal to allow U.S. forces to mount military action from Turkish territory against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. More importantly, the growing realisation that Turkey is not the reliable military ally it was thought to be for so many years reduces enthusiasm for transferring the most advanced multi-role combat aircraft to a problematic ally. Better to let only Israel have the F35 within the greater Middle East.  

Does this mean that Erdogan will “get away with it”? That he will he not suffer much from embarrassing the United States, snubbing alliance solidarity, flattering Russia, and being a contentious and difficult partner in efforts to bring peace and stability to the region? Apparently yes, for the present moment. But the relationship is not between Erdogan and the current Trump administration, it is between Turkey and the United States.

Whether Trump is listening to his advisors on Turkey, including Bolton, Pompeo, and Jeffrey, or arrived at the conclusion to eschew punitive sanctions on his own, makes little difference – for now, it appears that Trump will respond to Turkey’s anti-alliance acquisition of S400s in a non-punitive way, which is in the interests of the United States. Unlike his Turkish counterpart, he is following a course of action in the best interests of his country, not against them.   

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.