Turkish defence minister proposes Crete model for S-400 crisis

Many Soviet-era weapons belonging to Europe’s former Warsaw Pact countries were kept within the NATO system when those countries joined the alliance, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told Hürriyet newspaper in an interview on Tuesday, suggesting the crisis arising from Turkey’s Russian weapons purchases could be similarly resolved.

Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems has led to Washington removing the country from its F-35 fighter jet programme, and triggered sanctions under former president Donald Trump. New U.S. President Joe Biden has warned of more punitive actions to follow in the future.

Turkey could use the weapons systems in a similar fashion to how Greece, a NATO and European Union member state, uses its S-300 systems located in Crete, Akar proposed.

The United States maintains that Russian-made systems pose a threat to NATO security and demands Turkey keep its S-400s inactive. Turkey has refused, but Akar said the country w as “open to negotiating (the Crete Model) being implemented.”

Washington has opposed NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg saying any talks between the two allies could take place under the NATO roof, added the Turkish minister.

Cyprus had purchased the S-300 in late 1990s, and upon Turkey’s strong objection to the threat posed to its sovereignty by the system, Greece had approved the deployment on its own territory in the island of Crete. The systems are kept non-operational, and have been tested once in the past decade.

“It’s not like we will always use (the S-400),” Akar said. “These systems are made operational depending on the threat assessment. It’s us who decide on this.”

Speaking on the other major point of contention between the two allies, Akar said ties between Ankara and Washington would remain strained unless Washington cut off its support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian-Kurdish militia who were the main boots on the ground against ISIS.

Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist organisation over its alleged ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is included in the United States’ list of foreign terrorist organisations as well.

While Washington maintains that YPG has no afiliation with the PKK, “One thing is certain: The YPG is receiving instructions from the PKK,” Akar said.

According to the minister, it is impossible for the two allies to mend ties “if we cannot find a solution (to this problem).”

Akar told Hürriyet that “only a few” recent attacks in northeast Syria had been conducted by ISIS, and that YPG was behind an increasing number.

Turkey told the United States “to cooperate with us and not the YPG in their fight against DAESH,” Akar said, using Turkey’s preferred term for the Islamic State (ISIS). “We told them hundreds of times that we were ready to cooperate to provide peace and comfort there.”

Turkey has been accused of aiding ISIS, and veteran Turkish journalist Can Dündar was sentenced to 27 years in prison in December over his involvement in the reporting of Turkish intelligence services allegedly transporting weapons for ISIS, known as the MIT trucks incident.

While the S-400 issue can be resolved in a joint working group, Akar said, the matter of the YPG couldn’t. “We will see if (the Biden administration) acts in prejudice. We expect empathy. We approach matters with reason, not emotion.”

Akar said the new U.S. Secretary of Defence was “somebody we have known from the past,” and that he had already sent a letter congratulating retired four-star general and current Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin for his appointment. According to another interview with Sabah, Akar said he hasn’t received a response yet.

Selcan Hacaoğlu and Fırat Kozok from Bloomberg News Ankara penned an article on the same day, where they said Turkey was “prepared to make concessions” because it was “eager to secure the future supply of spare parts for its U.S.-made weapons systems and avoid damage to its economy,” citing Turkish officials familiar with Washington-Ankara relations.

To this end, the Turkish government could limit its use of the S-400s, as Ankara is also keen to prevent Washington from further strengthening ties with the YPG, the Ankara correspondents said.

Meanwhile, on Friday U.S. Ambassador to Ankara David Satterfield said U.S. sanctions couldn’t be lifted unless Turkey gave up on the S-400s.

If the United States insists on continuing its support for YPG, Turkey may take things into its own hands “if necessary”, Akar said in his Sabah interview. “Allah willing, things won’t come to that.”

It is time “to end the myth of Qandil and tear down the terrorist flag,” the minister said, referring to the PKK’s bases in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

Turkey has continued land and air operations since the summer in the region, and says is advancing towards the de facto headquarters of the outlawed organisation, which has been fighting for Kurdish self rule in Turkey for almost 40 years.

Turkey is prepared to “do anything to end terrorism,” and has already spoken with both the central Iraqi government and the Kurdistan administration, Akar said.