S-400 row symptom not cause of U.S.-Turkey tensions, analyst says

The row over Ankara’s decision to purchase a Russian-made missile system is a symptom, not the cause, of problems in the relationship between the United States and Turkey, according to analyst Ali Demirdas.

Turkey took delivery of the S-400 anti-aircraft system from Russia in July 2019 after failing to reach a deal to secure equivalent U.S.-made Patriot missiles.

In response, the United States imposed sanctions on Turkey’s defence industry under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and removed its NATO ally from production of the next-generation F-35 fighter jet.

Writing for the National Interest on Wednesday, Demirdas said the S-400 crisis reflected long-term changes in the U.S.-Turkey relationship after Ankara “began to increasingly pursue an independent foreign policy, which has not necessarily been in line with Washington’s perceived interests”.

The first signs of Turkey’s “growing defiance” can be traced back to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Demirdas said. Turkey’s newly elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) refused to allow U.S. troops to use its soil to open a northern offensive against former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces.

“Turkey, our NATO ally had let America down,” Demirdas cites then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as saying.

Soon after, U.S. troops arrested Turkish commandos operating in northern Iraq, accusing them of planning to assassinate the Iraqi-Kurdish governor of Kirkuk. The incident marked the “Pentagonization” of U.S.-Turkey relations, with the “level-headed State Department” sidelined by a more assertive U.S. military command, Demirdas said.

Divisions between the United States and Turkey have since been deepened by Washington’s “ineptitude” over Syria, the analyst said. The United States has worked closely with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the conflict. But Turkey regards the SDF as a threat to its national security over the group’s historic links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

These issues came to a head after the United States hesitated in selling Turkey the Patriot missile system, Demirdas said. “Having felt abandoned by Washington, Turkey felt that it had no choice but to turn to Russia for help, which Putin gladly provided”.

“It is a mere misjudgment to attribute the current U.S.-Turkish acrimony to the S-400s,” he said.