Retired envoy James Jeffrey says the S-400 is the only major problem for U.S-Turkey relations

Former U.S envoy to Syria James Jeffrey said that the main problem in United States-Turkey relations remains the purchase of the Russian S-400. 

In an interview with in a youtube programme, Jeffrey stated his belief that he does not see the dynamic in the relationship changing until this issue is solved. 

“There is no way that relations will improve dramatically until that is fixed,” Jeffrey, who is now Chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, said. “I have made that point and everybody in the last three administrations has made that point.”

In December, the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Turkish officials involved in the purchase of the S-400 from Russia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). After the purchase was finalised in June 2019, the U.S expelled Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, but it took nearly eighteen months to place CAATSA sanctions on Ankara as required under U.S law.

During the interview, Jeffrey was questioned about other key events that took place during his tenure as the U.S’ ranking diplomat responsible for Syria and the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). However, he did not comment on other flashpoints in U.S-Turkey relations including Turkey’s undermining of sanctions against Iran, its sabre-rattling in the eastern Mediterranean, or Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism.  

One episode Jeffrey was asked about was his role in brokering a ceasefire in October 2019 following Turkey’s launch of Operation Peace Spring against the U.S’ Kurdish allies in Syria that put American troops in danger. Two days after the invasion, then-Vice President Mike Pence met with Erdogan and they agreed on a temporary truce that was premised on the U.S helping the Kurdish militants move away from Turkey’s border with Syria. 

Jeffrey said that he travelled to Ankara ahead of Pence but took part in negotiations that achieved the ceasefire. He praised Pence for being “very open with President Erdogan” and insisted “they smiled a lot”, something not shown in the stone-faced pictures of the meeting shared with the press. 

He also insisted that the ceasefire has held and contributed to a return of stability to northeastern Syria without undermining Turkish security interests or the fight against ISIS in that region. 

Jeffrey was then questioned on his views of President Joe Biden’s new administration. The new foreign policy team is only a few weeks into their roles, but they already have made statements that were critical of or not well received by some in Turkey. 

On January 28, the White House released a readout of a phone call between Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Bjoern Seibert, Head of the Cabinet for the European Commission, where they agreed “to work together on issues of mutual concern, including China and Turkey.” Jeffrey was asked about this description and whether these statements pushed Turkey closer to U.S adversaries, in particular Russia. 

“I don't think anyone sees Turkey as an ally of Russia. I know the Russians do not, having talked to them,” the retired ambassador replied, pointing to clashes between Turkish and Russian-backed forces in Syria’s Idlib province and further away in Libya. 

Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have openly declined to describe Turkey as an ally, but the two nations have nonetheless worked together despite competing across the region. Moscow paid diplomatic support to Ankara after it was hit by CAATSA sanctions, and President Vladimir Putin has consistently praised his counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “man of his word.” 

Regarding President Biden, Jeffrey said he “knows President Erdogan” based on his experience as President Barack Obama’s Vice President. He used as one example Biden’s visit to Ankara in the after-math of the failed 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan where he said he had “great faith in your [Erdogan’s] leadership.” 

Biden’s visit at the time was meant to soothe Erdogan's sense of betrayal from the West, in particular the U.S for failing to immediately condemn the coup but much sooner criticise his response to it. This has fueled a conspiracy theory held within certain circles of the Turkish government that Washington was involved in the failed putsch.

President Obama forcefully denied the charge at the time, but it has persisted into the present. Just last week, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu repeating it following U.S criticism of Turkish authorities’ crackdown on student protests at Bogazici University and homophobic statements made by him and others. Current State Department spokesperson Ned Price reiterated in an official statement that the U.S had no role and the accusation was “wholly false”.

Jeffrey conceded that the U.S’ slow response to the coup attempt contributed to belief of its complicity in it. He said that the “Obama administration was slow to getting off the dime in condemning the coup and reaching out to embrace Erdogan as a democratic leader who was threatened.” 

However, he repeated that any claim of U.S complicity was untrue. Interestingly, he suggested that the U.S could be more empathetic today to Turkey’s sensitivities on this topic, especially after more recent politically volatile events at home. 

"We finally for the first time since 9/11 had an equivalent event in some respects closer to what happened in Turkey and that is what happened to us on the 6th of January in our Capitol," explained Jeffrey, referring to the sack of the U.S Capitol last month by a pro-Trump mob in a foolhardy attempt to overturn the November election of President Biden.

Turkish officials did not see much to be empathetic about in the aftermath of the riot. Many politicians in President Erdogan’s party went on to mock American congressmen taking cover inside the Capitol and they used the event to tar their own opposition, especially the People’s Republican Party (CHP) for embracing U.S support for Turkish democracy. 

Jeffrey retired from the U.S envoy role in October, one month before Biden won his election and has been critcised for what some see as being too willing to appease Erdogan. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton went so far as to characterise Jeffrey as developing “clientitis” after serving as U.S Ambassador to Turkey and that he “had no love lost for the Kurds, and still saw Turkey as a reliable NATO partner.”

The U.S’ Kurdish partners are accused by Turkey of being an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group both countries regard as a terrorist group. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as they are known in Syria were armed by the U.S to fight against ISIS, and Jeffrey was accused by many analysts as “selling out” the Kurds despite this.