Ilhan Tanir
Jul 02 2019

Osaka meeting could be end of an era

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan headed to Osaka to participate in the G-20 meetings last week, he left the aftershock of a historic defeat in the Istanbul elections and rebellions within his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) behind him. 

After his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, Erdoğan's standing did not get any better. 

In Osaka, there was no talk of Turkey’s future regarding the F-35s, the new generation fighter jets made by a U.S.-led consortium that Turkey has been part of the consortium since its inception in 2002.

It is now on the verge of expulsion from the programme thanks to its decision to deploy Russian-built S-400 missile defence systems, which U.S. and NATO officials say would constitute a security threat if deployed in allied territory. 

That means, practically speaking, that Turkey can say goodbye to the latest stealth fighter jets, after, by Erdoğan’s reckoning, spending over $1 billion on the programme. 

The second outcome of the meeting related to whether Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions will be imposed on Turkey, as the U.S. congress has set out in draft bills this year.

Talking Trump into a compromise on the sanctions was one of Erdoğan’s main aims in Osaka, and the Turkish president knew a suspension would save Turkey’s ailing economy from serious pain.

The U.S. president was asked about it directly after his remarks and stopped short of making any promises, instead saying, "We are looking at it … It is a two-way street." 

“It’s a problem, there’s no question about it,” Trump said. “It’s not good. It’s not good.”

In no place did Trump say he would oppose sanctions on Turkey. He simply repeated Erdoğan's talking points without giving any promises.

The signals that the White House is currently sending does not in any way indicate otherwise.

As far as the White House is concerned, after the Osaka meeting nothing has changed. Despite Turkish press reports, and the rallying of the Turkish lira to its strongest level since April, Trump’s remark that the S-400 purchase is “a problem” is more indicative of Washington’s stance than his repetition of Erdoğan’s talking points.

Before the Osaka meeting, a White House senior official told Ahval that procuring the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system will have "severe consequences" on Turkey’s relationship with the United States. The same official said the purchase of the Russian system was “unacceptable and could trigger the CAATSA." 

Appearing on the CBS news show Face the Nation, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham was asked about Erdoğan’s statement that Trump had made assurances Turkey would not face sanctions for receiving and activating the S-400s.

“It's impossible,” said Graham, referring to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), passed in 2017. “Under our law, if Turkey...activates the S-400 missile battery they bought from the Russians, sanctions would be required.” 

It is true that Trump can delay or issue a waiver for a country against the U.S. Congress' CAATSA sanctions. However, to do that, Trump must be able to demonstrate that Turkey is reducing its military and intelligence partnership with Russia, experts on the subject say. 

Instead, Erdoğan is all but vowing to increase every type of partnership with Russia, including collaborating with Moscow on production of the new S-500 systems. 

During his press conference after the meeting in Osaka, Erdoğan said ''on the subject of sanctions, Trump has already made a statement clearing the issue. We have heard him say no such thing will happen.''

But Trump has not made any such promise. Instead, Trump said ''it is a problem.'' Perhaps the situation is now so grave it will be impossible for Erdoğan to accept until the moment reality hits, when CAATSA sanctions have been announced and Trump is unwilling to make a stand for Turkey. 

Trump has not given any reason to believe he intends to suspend or waiver sanctions. Instead, he promised to push through the sale of 100 more Boeing planes, an attempt to offer Turkey a sweetener. 

The Osaka meeting may go down in history as the final meeting before Turkey's expulsion from the F-35 project and descent to pre-sanctioned status. After Osaka, there are no other stops left before reality hits with a crash, even if it is impossible to tell how and when the sanctions will be imposed on Turkey.