What are the implications of Turkey’s request for U.S. Patriot missiles?
Turkey recently asked for the deployment of U.S. Patriot long-range air defence missiles on its southern border with Syria to help it confront the regime offensive there.
The Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive against Idlib has so far killed over 50 Turkish soldiers this month and escalated tensions between Ankara and Moscow.
In a single incident on Feb. 27, 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in a Syrian airstrike, the largest number of fatalities the Turkish Army suffered in a single day since it first intervened in the Syrian conflict back in August 2016.
To make matters worse for Turkey, Russia alleged that those slain Turkish troops were operating alongside militants belonging to the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group.
However, in a clear bid to defuse tensions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed in phone contact on Friday to implement extra measures to stabilise the situation in Idlib, combat terrorist groups there and meet soon to discuss the crisis.
If tensions between Turkey and Russia over Idlib deteriorate further despite these pledges they could potentially bring an end to their cooperation in Syria. It might also bring about a return to tense status quo that prevailed between the two powers following Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian Su-24 bomber in November 2015.
After Erdoğan apologised for that incident in the summer of 2016, Turkey and Russia cooperated in Syria. Russia included Turkey alongside Iran in its tripartite Astana peace process, which was supposed to prevent conflict from expanding in Idlib. Moscow even green-lighted Turkey’s successive incursions into Syria, which were primarily against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), by opening Syrian airspace to the Turkish Air Force.
Also, in a historic first, Russia began selling advanced military hardware to the powerful NATO member.
Turkey began taking delivery of Russian S-400 missiles last July. These sophisticated long-range air defence systems are currently deployed primarily for the protection of Ankara and are scheduled for activation in April.
Turkey’s S-400 acquisition led to its suspension from the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and strained defence ties between Ankara the United States and the broader NATO alliance – which all oppose Turkey fielding such an advanced Russian system.
Now that Turkey is once again at loggerheads with Russia in Syria and cannot rely on the U.S. support by deploying its Patriot air defence system, it seems that Erdoğan’s strategy of playing both powers against each other to get what he wants is failing spectacularly.
Erdoğan told Turkish media this week that the prospect of a U.S. Patriot deployment is not on the table.
In the past, Erdoğan’s government claimed the United States never offered favourable terms for the sale of Patriot missiles, such as technology transfer, which compelled it to seek S-400s instead.
However, as recently clarified by a Russian military-diplomatic source, the S-400 deal never envisaged even a partial technology transfer. Why Ankara risked and sacrificed so much to procure the system when it had equally viable alternatives is, therefore, questionable.
One reason for this, analysts have suggested, is that Turkey needs a completely independent air defence system, independent from NATO and its own military, in case of another coup attempt, such as the one in July 2016 when Turkish F-16s bombed Ankara.
“It’s clear that the S-400 deal was political and a priori envisioned the creation of an air defence system that, in my opinion, wouldn’t be included in the NATO system,” said Anton Mardasov, a non-resident military affairs expert at the Russian International Affairs Council.
Mardasov was referring to Turkey’s T-LORAMIDS (Turkish Long Range Air And Missile Defence System) tender, which it cancelled under pressure from its NATO allies, that sought the creation of an independent air defence system for Turkey.
While Turkey may feel the need to operate S-400s for the protection of Ankara in the event of another coup attempt, it will still need the U.S. assistance for its air defence needs elsewhere, since it will not acquire nearly enough S-400s to cover its entire airspace anytime soon, if ever.
Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, believes that Turkey’s Patriot request indicates that “Ankara is searching again for a great power protector and is using the requests to try and put an American body on the same side of the Turkish military.”
Following the withdrawal of U.S. Patriots, and their replacement by Patriots belonging to Turkey’s European allies, Turkey was given an opportunity to buy Patriots.
However, Turkey refused, adamantly opting for S-400s, which Stein assumes was for political reasons.
In February 2019, the United States offered to fast-track the sale of Patriots to Turkey if it agreed to cancel the S-400 deal. Ankara refused. Turkey again suggested it might buy Patriots, but only in addition to S-400s, not as an alternative.
The U.S. offer expired last summer. It’s unclear if Ankara will again seek to buy Patriots if its relations with Russia deteriorate over Idlib.
Süleyman Özeren, Turkey expert at George Mason University, said the standoff in Idlib “taught Ankara that purchasing S-400s failed to purchase Russia’s undisputed trust.”
“If Ankara-Moscow relations survive, probably Ankara will pursue purchasing other weapon systems and technologies from Russia but under very strict scrutiny by Moscow,” Özeren said.
The prospect of technology transfer, “is now a dream which won’t come true.”
In the meantime, Turkey’s latest request for deployment of U.S. Patriots “doesn’t automatically say anything about the S-400s beyond that they’re not available operationally yet,” said Joseph Trevithick, a military analyst for The War Zone.
Sim Tack, the chief military analyst at Force Analysis and Global Analyst for Stratfor, a leading geopolitical intelligence firm owned by RANE company, also agrees that the Patriot request “should not be seen as a reflection of the technical capabilities of the S-400 systems that Turkey has acquired from Russia.”
“At a technical level, the S-400 launchers would be equally capable of performing the mission of deterring Russian air operations against Turkey, or discouraging their activities over Idlib,” he said.
On one hand, Ankara may seek deployment of U.S. Patriot missiles on its southern border to use in its present tensions with Russia while improving its strained relationship with the United States.
Moreover, deployment of Patriots on Turkey’s southern border would send a stronger message to Russia than any deployment of Turkish air defence systems.
On the other hand, if Turkey were to deploy its S-400s against Russian warplanes, even if just as a threat or warning, that would “directly link the issues of defence cooperation between the two states, and their current standoff over Idlib,” Tack said.
“Turkey would rather compartmentalize these cases to retain a working relationship with Moscow, even if they can’t align their interests in the Syrian conflict,” he added.
However, even if the United States deploys Patriots on Turkey’s southern border it’s not clear what their rules of engagement would be and under what conditions they would engage Russian, or even Syrian warplanes.
Without ensuring air superiority over Idlib, which is inconceivable so long as Russia continues to provide the regime air support there, Turkey’s military options in the province are severely constrained. One retired Turkish admiral even went so far as to say that Turkey would be sending its troops to their deaths if it deploys them without air support. Thursday’s lethal airstrike underscored this reality.
Trevithick believes the United States would happily offer to sell Turkey Patriots again in the future, but would likely apply tighter restrictions on their use and pressure Turkey to give it “a firm guarantee of divestment of the S-400s.”
That prospect, coupled with Özeren’s prediction that Russia might also scrutinize future arms deals with Turkey much more strictly, suggests that Ankara, far from successfully playing Washington and Moscow against each other, incurred the increased distrust of both major powers simultaneously.
Turkey, Trevithick said, “boxed itself in” as a result of its S-400 purchase and consequently finds itself with few good choices available for its continuing efforts of modernizing its long-range air defence capabilities “absent the development of a domestic system or systems.”
© Ahval English
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.