Jul 12 2019

'It's a problem', U.S. senior official says after S-400 arrives in Turkey

(Story was updated with comment from U.S. official in fourth paragraph, reports of S-400 delivery schedule in fifth paragraph, sanctions timing in 12th, U.S. politicians' reactions in 13th, 14th and 15th, opposition reactions in 16th, Syria op in 17th, McGurk's comments in 19th)

Turkey began taking delivery of Russian S-400 missile systems, raising the risk of economic sanctions from the United States.

The Turkish military received a first batch of S-400 parts at an airbase adjacent to the capital Ankara on Friday, the Turkish Ministry of Defence said in a statement on Twitter.

The United States has threatened reprisals against Turkey, including barring it from the F-35 stealth fighter programme and banning its defence firms from the United States, should it take delivery of the weapons. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says the missiles are essential for Turkey’s defences.  

"We are aware of reports that Turkey has taken delivery of the S-400. As the President said at the G20 ahead of meeting with Erdogan, 'It's a problem, there's no question about it,'" a senior U.S. government official said in a statement to Ahval.

The Turkish lira dropped 1.6 percent to 5.76 per dollar at 4:09 p.m. in Istanbul. The currency sank to a record low last August when U.S. President Donald Trump imposed sanctions for Turkey’s detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson.

Turkey plans to deploy the missiles along its eastern border with Syria, as well as near the capital Ankara, local media have reported. Friday's delivery was the first of three, with more than 100 missiles to follow by ship, state-run Anadolu news agency reported. Turkish military experts will receive training in Russia in July and August, it said.

Erdoğan has become increasingly critical of the West and U.S. policy since his governing party gained power in 2002. Early last year, he attacked U.S.-backed Kurdish militants in northeast Syria against U.S. and NATO wishes. He then refused to release Brunson, prompting Trump to bar some of his ministers from traveling to the United States and doubling tariffs on Turkish steel. Meanwhile, Erdoğan has grown close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, cooperating on peacekeeping efforts for Syria and holding frequent bilateral talks.

Politicians in the U.S. Congress have said that Turkey will face punishment for taking delivery of the weapons. Puniitve sanctions are likely to be carried out under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which bars individuals, companies or governments from dealing with sanctioned entities, including Russian defence firms.

Erdoğan said last month that Trump believes Turkey was treated unfairly when it sought to previously procure alternative weapons from the United States under the Obama administration, Trump would not approve sanctions, Erdoğan said after holding talks with the U.S. president at the G-20 meetings in Japan in early June.

The U.S. State Department said this week that there has been no change in Washington’s position on possible sanctions against Turkey. That means Turkey faces expulsion from the F-35 programme and potentially crippling economic sanctions under CAATSA, it said.

“Can Trump sit on these, and would he want to?” Tim Ash, a senior strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said in e-mailed comments to clients. “And even if he does, does Congress want to escalate this with a separate Turkish sanctions bill akin to CAATSA.”

Josh Rogin, a political analyst for the Washington Post, said on Thursday that the U.S. administration had prepared a set of strong sanctions against Turkey that will be applied shortly after it receives the S-400s.

Should Trump reject the recommendations of Congress, legislators can over-rule him. His administration could, however, first delay a decision on whether to punish Turkey for weeks or months.

Reactions to the arrival of S-400s flooded in from politicians on both sides of the aisle on Friday. A written statement from the chairs and ranking members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees said Erdoğan had chosen a "perilous partnership" with Russian President Vladimir Putin, "at the expense of Turkey’s security, economic prosperity & the integrity of the NATO alliance."

The committees urged Trump "to fully implement sanctions as required by law under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act" and expel Turkey from the F-35 programme in the statement.

“There’ll be sanctions. We’ll yank out F35 production. I mean it’s not going to be good for Turkey....This is really unfortunate,” Bloomberg senior White House correspondent Jennifer Jacobs quoted Senator Ron Johnson as saying.

Faiz Öztrak, the spokesperson for Turkey’s secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party, demanded information on how the ruling party weighed up the purchase of the S-400 systems against the measures threatened by the United States regarding sanctions and expulsion from the F-35 programme. Opposition nationalist Good Party leader raised questions on whether the S-400s could operate together with Turkey's existing military hardware, including its current fleet of U.S.-built F-16s.

Erdogan has threatened Turkey's own economic reprisals should sanctions be approved. The Turkish military is also involved in a troop build-up on the Syrian border in preparation for a possible incursion against U.S.-backed Kurdish militants, Habertürk news website reported on Friday.

On Thursday, a report in Turkey's pro-government Milli newspaper said the first S-400 batteries would be deployed to Turkey's border with Syria.

Brett McGurk, a former U.S. diplomat who served extensively in the Middle East under the last three administrations, including as a Special Presidential Envoy, tied the incidents together in a tweet on Friday, accusing Ankara of playing a "cynical game" by threatening U.S. personnel and allies in north east Syria.

NATO is concerned about the potential ramifications of Turkey’s decision to acquire the S-400s, a NATO official told CNN on Friday.

"It is up to allies to decide what military equipment they buy. However, we are concerned about the potential consequences of Turkey's decision to acquire the S-400 system,” the official said, citing concerns about the potential effect of the Russian missiles on NATO’s interoperability.

Should it activate the S-400s, analysts say that Turkey could inadvertently compromise the stealth capabilities of the F-35 jet fighter, worth over a trillion dollars to the U.S. defence industry. Aircraft carry an electronic trace and Turkey would need to enter the codes of the F-35 into the S-400 system to identify the jet as a friendly aircraft. Russia could then potentially get its hands on the codes.