Will Turkey face more pressure over its S-400 purchase and testing after U.S. election?
(This story has been updated with Nicholas Danforth's remarks)
Turkey’s recent test-firing of its Russian-built S-400 air defence missile system may finally lead it to incur long-threatened United States sanctions following the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
In mid-October, Turkey test-fired the system over the Black Sea. This followed repeated warnings from Washington for well over a year not to activate the system.
A U.S. State Department official recently said that suspending Turkey from the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme for purchasing S-400s isn’t necessarily going to be the only penalty Ankara will face for buying the Russian systems. He warned Turkey could become banned from purchasing more weapons systems from the United States.
Turkey, a NATO member, was widely condemned by Washington for purchasing and now test-firing the Russian system. The Pentagon denounced it “in the strongest possible terms”. Congress has frozen arms sales to Turkey since 2018 over its S-400 purchase.
Turkey may well have timed its test-firing to coincide with the U.S. presidential election. It had previously vowed to activate the system earlier this year but postponed it, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
Since paying $2.5 billion for the advanced Russian system, Turkey has been eligible for sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). U.S. President Donald Trump has long sought to avoid slapping any sanctions on Ankara.
Now, whether or not Trump is re-elected this month, Turkey could face increased U.S. pressure, possibly including sanctions, in the near future for its divisive procurement.
Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, said that while it’s hard to know for sure if Turkey chose to test the system in the run-up to the election it “certainly seems as if this decision as well as (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan’s taunting the U.S. government to sanction Turkey is meant to occur while the U.S. is distracted by political events taking place” in the United States.
He predicted that if Trump is elected, he may well find it much more difficult to avoid sanctioning Turkey.
“No matter who ends up controlling the Senate pressures to sanction Turkey for the S-400 deal – and also its aggressive policies in Libya, the eastern Mediterranean, and Southern Caucasus – will certainly grow and become unstoppable at some point,” Edelman told Ahval.
“I suspect as with CAATSA itself he will be confronted with a veto-proof majority.”
If Joe Biden wins the election, he will likely be less hesitant in imposing sanctions.
“The revelations about (former acting Attorney General Matt) Whitaker and (Attorney General William) Barr’s efforts to bury the Halkbank case will almost certainly colour how a Biden administration looks at this,” he said, referring to the criminal investigation into Turkey’s Halkbank over violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Nicholas Danforth, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, believes a point of no return may have been reached on this issue, noting that Ankara “has made it clear it won’t be keeping them in a warehouse.”
He believes if Biden wins the election we will “almost certainly get CAATSA sanctions” while another Trump administration could also eventually impose sanctions.
“That said, I don’t see either side being eager to escalate this further at the moment,” Danforth told Ahval.
Ankara-based political analyst Ali Bakeer believes the timing of this test might have taken into consideration the U.S. election “so as to minimise any possible reaction and test whether Washington is serious about bridging the gap or not”.
If re-elected, Bakeer doubts that Trump will face more pressure to sanction Turkey.
“Trump admitted that the problem was created by Obama’s administration when Turkey signalled its intention to buy American Patriot missiles, so unless the anti-Turkey majority Congress, which is usually motivated by lobbies such as those of Israel, Greece, Armenia, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and so forth makes his job harder, then there would still be a chance to resolve the issue,” he told Ahval.
If Biden is elected, Bakeer foresees the prospect of Turkey facing some pressure from the U.S. in light of some of his recent “hostile statements”. Nevertheless, once an occupant of the Oval Office, Biden might have a change of heart “knowing that it will be very hard for Washington to navigate in the region without a strong ally such as Turkey”.
Bakeer said there was still a slim chance for the U.S. and Turkey to resolve the S-400 impasse but insisted that it is incumbent upon the U.S. “to show a serious and sincere will to reach a reasonable solution”.
Edelman said he was unsure if full activation and deployment by Turkey of its S-400s in the near future could lead to a complete U.S. arms embargo of the kind Washington imposed on Ankara following its 1974 invasion of Northern Cyprus. At the time, Turkey responded by denying U.S. access to İncirlik airbase and other strategically-important military bases on its soil.
“The post-Cyprus arms embargo was not a happy experience, and I am not sure that anyone wants to repeat that but a downward spiral in relations that could affect U.S. access to İncirlik – or a U.S. decision that it is just prudent to pull out of İncirlik – cannot be excluded,” he said.
“That is one reason that for several years I have advocated the DoD (U.S. Department of Defence) plan to move to alternate locations so the U.S. does not get caught flat-footed.”
Bakeer is doubtful the relationship will deteriorate to that point, arguing that both sides have too much to lose.
“I don’t see an arms embargo coming, but we shouldn’t forget that the U.S. persisting position not to sell drones to Turkey made Ankara a world-leading drone manufacturer now,” he said. “The U.S. should take into consideration that any serious measures against Turkey will drive it more towards Russia, which will not be good for either Washington or Ankara.”
While Danforth doesn’t foresee an arms embargo anytime soon he nevertheless anticipates that “there will certainly be a lot more resistance to arms sales to Turkey from U.S. and European lawmakers.”
Nicholas Heras, Director of Government Relations at The Institute for the Study of War, summed up today’s U.S.-Turkey relationship as one in “a state of crisis”.
“The only reason why it has not sunk into the abyss is the close personal connection between Trump and Erdoğan,” he told Ahval. “Turkey has relied on the relationship between the two presidents to stave off CAATSA.”
According to Heras, we are now at an “inflection point” which was recently reached due to Turkey activating the S-400 system “in such a way as to endanger NATO military operations”.
“Turkey’s decision with the S-400 is no laughing matter in Washington D.C., and there is a growing bipartisan consensus that Turkey is an ally in name only,” he said.
While a Biden administration will want to strengthen NATO, Heras said that Turkey has made the alliance weaker, citing its recent standoff with Greece and Erdoğan’s war of words with French President Emmanuel Macron, which all make “any NATO-focused argument from within the Biden camp hard to make”.
“Turkey’s use of the S-400 further undermines a NATO-focused argument to drastically change U.S. engagement with Turkey,” Heras said. This is because Erdoğan’s Turkey has proven “a major disruption to U.S. assumptions that both NATO and the rules-based international order that underpins European security and the Mediterranean Zone can be strengthened.”
“Erdoğan is poised to be a bugbear that will haunt the Biden team’s ambitious agenda.”