Jun 12 2019

Erdoğan breaks silence over U.S. letter, says ‘S-400 purchase is already complete’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has broken a week of silence on the simmering dispute with Washington over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems to reiterate that the deal will go ahead.

In a letter to the Turkish Defence Minister last week, U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan laid out the repercussions Turkey will face if it goes through with the S-400 deal, which U.S. and NATO officials believe will present a security risk to the NATO alliance.

If Turkey does not withdraw from the S-400 deal by July 31, it will face expulsion from the F-35 fighter jet programme, and will also likely face reprisals from U.S. congress including sanctions that could devastate Turkey’s economy, the letter warned. The United States has already stopped the training of the Turkish pilots for F-35s in U.S. Luke Air Force Base over the weekend. 

Speaking during a parliamentary group meeting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Wednesday, Erdoğan left little room for doubt that Turkey will take delivery of the S-400s, with the shipments scheduled in July and deployment scheduled in October.

“I am not saying we will purchase the S-400 defence systems, I am saying we already have purchased the S-400 systems”, the Turkish president said. "Deliveries will be made next month."

Erdoğan gave a defiant speech that touched on domestic issues, including the results of the March 31 local elections and the June 23 rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election, before moving on to list his grievances with his western allies on the S-400 and other issues.

“We didn’t lose in Ankara, and we didn’t lose in Istanbul, we won”, Erdoğan said, adding that the AKP had won the majority of districts in those cities.

Yet the ruling party lost the crucial mayoral election in the capital of Ankara, as well as Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, and a slew of other major cities.

Erdoğan’s extremely divisive decision to appeal against the Istanbul result and demand a rerun, which is scheduled for June 23, has been interpreted as a sign that he sees his position as weak, despite having an unprecedented hold on the state apparatus as the country’s first executive president.

Ongoing disputes with Turkey’s western allies have piled the pressure on the president. U.S. sanctions imposed on Turkey last summer over the imprisonment on terror charges of an American pastor drove the lira to a record low of 7.2 against the dollar last August. 

The lira has recovered significantly since then, but problems have continued for Turkey’s economy, which entered a recession in the final quarter of 2018. Turkish citizens have felt the strain of high price inflation, and many were forced to buy food from government-subsidised food stands in big cities at the beginning of the year. Erdoğan blames the stalling economy on foreign attacks.

“The problems our country faces are not coincidental, in fact they are all linked”, Erdoğan said on Wednesday.

The president went on to list a series of foreign policy disputes that he said had all been concocted with the aim of removing the AKP from power.

“That’s what they want, but they won’t get rid of us. They don’t have the power,” Erdoğan said. “We know all about the kind of tricks they use to create political instability, and we will never fall into the trap”, he added later.

Foremost among the grievances listed by the president was the United States’ backing of Kurdish militias in Northern Syria. Turkey views the militias, including the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as terrorist organisations due to their links to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. But the United States has armed and provided support for the militias during the late stages of the Syrian conflict.

“Our allies have sent 10,000 truckloads of weapons to terrorists in Syria”, Erdoğan said.

The president went on to raise the spectre of a Turkish operation against the Kurdish militias in areas of Northern Syria east of the Euphrates river, where U.S. forces are still deployed.

“We will obliterate the terrorists’ corridor east of the Euphrates. Just as we’ve said, we can come suddenly in one night”, Erdoğan said.

He then moved on to Turkey’s dispute with Greece and Cyprus over economic rights in the area around the island, also tying these in with the wrangling over the S-400 systems.

“We don’t see the S-400 and F-35 issues as separate, and we don’t see the tension over energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean as a separate issue,” Erdoğan said. 

Turkey, the only country to formally recognise the breakaway Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, objects to Greek Cypriot exploitation of hydrocarbons around the islands on the grounds that this infringes on Turkish Cypriots’ rights to the island’s resources.

After blocking international ships from drilling in Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) last year, Turkey has sent its own vessels to explore nearby areas in a provocative move that Cyprus answered by issuing arrest warrants for 25 people involved in the drilling.

The United States has taken Cyprus’s side in the dispute, moving to end an arms embargo in the island and to increase security cooperation with the Cypriots. 

Meanwhile, Turkish press and officials including Defence Minister Hulusi Akar have discussed deploying the S-400s on Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean coastlines, which would place them within range of Cypriot and Greek airspace.

Erdoğan’s speech made it clear that Ankara views all these disputes as a product of attacks on the AKP government from Turkey’s NATO allies.

The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, is steadfast in its opposition to the S-400 purchase, and it appears to have little patience left for an administration that it has been involved in near-constant disputes with for several years.

The Turkish president may be pinning his hopes on a last-minute intervention from U.S. President Donald Trump, who he is likely to meet at the G-20 summit in Osaka at the end of the month. But with Congress united against Turkey on the S-400 issue, the chances of a decisive intervention from Trump are slim.

© Ahval English