Washington’s response to S-400 delivery will shape U.S.-Turkey relations

The July 12  arrival of components of the Russian S-400 at the Akinci Air Base near Ankara demands a response from Turkey’s most powerful NATO ally given the oft repeated adamant opposition of the U.S. to Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 system.  A response will surely come.  How punitive or accommodating that response is will shape U.S.-Turkey relations for years to come.

The arrival of S-400 components less than two days after the arrival of the new U.S. envoy to Turkey, Ambassador David Satterfield, and only a few days before the anniversary of the July 15 2016 failed coup attempt, raises questions about the timing of the delivery. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s desire to distance Turkey from the West and the U.S. has shaped his foreign policy decisions for decades – if he did accelerate the delivery of some components, it only reminds us of that long-standing goal, not a change in his attitude. Most importantly, the video loop showing the off-loading of components from a Russian transport plane laid to rest the unrealistic hopes that Erdogan could be induced to cancel the deal with Russia.

Will the U.S. go through with plans to remove Turkey from the F-35 programme?  Will it impose sanctions under CAATSA (The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act)? Will it reduce engagement with Turkish counterparts at NATO?  Put simply, where will it come down on the continuum between accommodation and punishment in responding to the long-predicted delivery of S-400s?

The indications are that the Trump Administration will take several steps to safeguard U.S. interests, in particular ending Turkish participation in the F-35 programme, but not impose punitive measures. That is to say, it will soften the impact of sanctions as much as the law and Congressional pressure will allow. 

There are several bits of evidence for this:

First, the administration knew this event was coming, and if they wanted to signal extreme dissatisfaction and a resulting punitive attitude, it would have released strong (and fully coordinated) messages from the White House, State Department, Department of Defence (DoD), and the Embassy in Ankara.  It certainly did not do this; in fact, the Trump administration has been mostly quiet.  This reflects, assuming coordination between the U.S. national security agencies and the White House, that the discussions about an initial response reflected a consensus to not exacerbate tensions by bellicose statements but to adopt a public “wait-and-see” posture that allows the administration to calibrate its response. 

Second, Satterfield has arrived. His arrival in Turkey was not delayed, for surely the US knew components were on their way and could have delayed his arrival to send a message of displeasure to Turkey.  Thus, his arrival when the U.S. knew the delivery of S-400 components was imminent shows that the U.S. has decided for continued, or even enhanced, dialogue over blunt and counterproductive gestures.

Third, there were no immediate and harsh tweets from Trump.  The current U.S. president is not constrained by precedent and protocol in his foreign policy actions, and if he wished to blast Turkey for taking delivery of the S-400 components, he would have done so, regardless of any advice from State or DoD. 

Finally, calmer minds seem to be prevailing regarding U.S.-Turkey relations.  In part, this is due to the success of Ekrem Imamoglu in winning the mayoral elections in Istanbul, narrowly at first, resoundingly in the re-run.  This reminded Washington policy makers and pundits that Turkey does not reflect only the tendencies of its president, but remains a democracy, albeit a flawed one with weakened democratic institutions, in which the people have the ultimate say.  Responding in a punitive way to Turkey based on its president’s pursuit of a foreign policy that seeks distance from Western democratic values would ill-serve the interest of the U.S. and the Trans-Atlantic community of democracies that it leads.

The next few weeks will paint a clearer picture of how the U.S. will respond.  We should take note of some specific events to gauge the U.S. response.

Who receives Satterfield when he presents his letters of credence to be formally and officially received by Turkey as the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey will indicate Erdogan’s interest in closer engagement with the U.S.  In countries with a largely ceremonial president, it is common practice for him/her to receive new ambassadors; that is less common in countries with Executive Presidents, in which case the new Ambassador is usually first received by the foreign minister.  If Erdogan personally receives Satterfield to present his letters of credence that will send a message that he seeks continued close relations with the United States.  If Satterfield were to present his letters to someone ranked below the minister of foreign relations, that would send a negative message.  

For almost two years, charges d’affaires ad interim have conducted formal U.S. diplomatic relations in Ankara.  While highly competent, they do not possess the prestige or authority of a presidentially appointed and senate-confirmed ambassador.  Once Satterfield is formally accredited, Turkey will have an authoritative interlocutor with whom it can communicate directly and through him confidentially and confidently with Washington.  Almost as important, Satterfield is widely respected in Washington – his opinions on how to respond to the Turkish government will be given due consideration at State and in the White House as those of the charges could not.  His and Embassy public statements on relations with Turkey in the weeks ahead, after he is formally accredited, will be a useful gauge of the relationship. 

For now, it looks like Erdogan will succeed in his ongoing efforts to assert Turkish independence from the meddlesome Western nations without seeing the economy, on which his political future increasingly depends, weakened further by punitive U.S. sanctions.  Turkey will lose access to the F-35s and be treated even more warily by its NATO allies, but it appears Washington policy makers realize that inflicting further economic pain on Turkey’s people will not benefit the U.S., and would only play into Erdoğan’s nationalistic rhetoric about the West’s efforts to constrain Turkey’s rise. 

But, it is early days. Erdoğan will likely continue to seek cosier relations with  (and unacknowledged increased dependence on) Russia and to manipulate the United States into being seen as the cause of a rupture in U.S.-Turkey relations.  For the United States to maintain its relations with Turkey in the face of those efforts will take some deft handling by the new Ambassador and great patience on the part of Washington policy makers.  Patience with Erdoğan has already worn thin - we shall see in the U.S. response to the delivery of S400 components whether those policy makers retain a willingness to put up with Turkey’s anti-American rhetoric and actions for the sake of keeping Turkey’s people within the Trans-Atlantic democratic community. 

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