Turkey and United States may have a way out of S-400 and F-35 dispute
As the delivery of components of the Russian S-400 air and missile defence system to Turkey approaches, the two NATO allies, Turkey and the United States, have locked themselves into hardline positions. Yet, both the U.S. President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have reversed themselves or pivoted to a new position in the past, so there remains a chance that a full rupture can be avoided. Of the two, Erdoğan has more ability to change course given his greater domestic political authority – will he exercise that ability to the benefit of Turkey?
The recent testimony of Trump’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, revealed that the White House position on a response to Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian air defence system aligns with the hardline views of the U.S. Senate. Previously there was speculation, based on Trump’s statements about Erdoğan, that the White House and the Congress were not reading from the same script. That is no longer the case. Satterfield’s testimony would have been cleared by the White House and it clearly shows the Trump team is prepared to suspend or terminate Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program and even apply sanctions under CAATSA.
Quoting Vice President Mike Pence’s comments on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of NATO, Satterfield noted that “Turkey must choose” between remaining a critical partner of NATO or making reckless decisions to undermine the alliance. Yet, he hinted at a way out of the dilemma, if Turkey will take it: the United Sates “would continue to press Turkey to procure NATO interoperable military equipment.” Thus, Erdoğan could turn away from the Russian system without adopting the U.S. Patriot or other U.S. systems, explaining that change in course of action as he chooses, and avoid the economically and politically disastrous rupture with Washington and NATO.
During the municipal election campaign, bashing the United States served Erdoğan well. The proposed acquisition of the Russian system reminded his supporters that he was a strong leader, fully independent of the United States. With the exception of the high-profile narrow losses in Istanbul and Ankara, the AKP did well in the municipal elections – Erdoğan no longer needs to publicly confront the United States to strengthen his appeal.
Likewise for publicly demanding the United States to leave Syria and abandon its battlefield allies, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (PKK), which Turkey sees as a security threat. Erdoğan no longer needs to raise the issue for electoral reasons, especially as raising it now months after Trump’s promise of complete withdrawal has been moderated would remind everyone that there is nothing much Erdoğan can do about the delay in U.S. forces leaving.
In many areas, the consequences for Turkey and NATO will be grave if Erdoğan goes through with the S-400 deal. In addition to suspension from the F-35 programme, which would have devastating impact on the Turkish defence industry, the United States would have to cease the delivery of other defence articles and new sales/transfer programs.
Furthermore, the prospect of sanctions against Turkish senior political leaders under CAATSA appears increasingly likely – the only question being how senior or how close to Erdoğan. That the Trump administration was last year willing to use Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against ministers in a NATO ally’s government to secure the release of one U.S. citizen indicates its willingness to use CAATSA sanctions to blunt Russian influence in Turkey and safeguard the advanced technology of the F-35 and other U.S. military technology from Russia. Recent actions also indicate that the White House will not resist, as it has in the past, Congressional efforts to “punish” Turkey for getting closer to Russia, specifically the acquisition of the S-400s.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s April 22 announcement that waivers from sanctions for countries buying Iranian oil would not be extended reveals that the hardline opposition to Iran drives White House foreign policy, and it is getting harder. One suspects that Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin previewed this announcement when they met Turkish Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak in the Oval Office last week.
If Turkey were to violate U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil at the same time it acquired Russian S-400s, any goodwill towards Turkey still alive in the White House and the Senate would be killed. Of course, if Turkey backed away from the S-400 deal, say for a non-U.S. system from another NATO partner(s), an exemption for Turkey might be doable, or at the very least a deep discount on crude from non-Iranian suppliers could be arranged.
Investors remain nervous about the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Turkey – the damage to investor confidence and to the exchange rate due to the imposition of sanctions over the Brunson affair has not been completely overcome. Investor confidence would decline precipitously if the U.S. imposed CAATSA sanctions, and the eventual recovery would be measured in years, not months, if Turkey goes ahead with the S-400 deal.
On the other hand, if Turkey changed course and adopted a NATO interoperable system, even a non-U.S. one, international investors’ confidence would increase and the economic benefits to Turkey, and the prospects of Erdoğan and his closest political partners, would improve.
Can Erdoğan or Trump change course? It is hard to see how Trump could. Many in Congress have lost patience with Erdoğan personally and Turkey in general regarding human rights failures, incarceration of journalists, anti-Western rhetoric, and, most importantly, close relations with the autocratic and increasingly confrontational Putin regime. Suspicion of Trump for his attitude towards Putin, even after his vindication on collusion allegations by the Muller report, lingers, so the White House is unlikely to defend Turkey’s choice of a Russian system.
Pressure from the U.S. Congress to punish Turkey will be strong. Many in Congress recognise millions of Turks oppose Erdoğan’s tilt away from the West and do not wish to hold an entire nation responsible for one man’s decisions. Yet others join with some D.C.-based pundits in calls for the expulsion of Turkey from NATO – and their number will increase if Turkey acquires the S-400, a direct affront to NATO solidarity. Those who recognise the geo-strategic importance and value to the alliance of Turkey, including senior Trump officials, will have a difficult time making their case for Turkey in NATO with members of Congress if Erdoğan acquires S-400s.
Can Erdoğan change course? If he wishes to, and let us assume that he does want to keep Turkey in NATO, there is a way out.
First, the electoral season is over, he no longer needs anti-Western, nationalist rhetoric to secure votes. Second, the economy would benefit from cancelling the S-400 deal, both from the money not spent and from the renewed confidence of foreign investors. Third, he could declare that improved relations with Russia have ended the threat from Syria so the system is no longer necessary, leaving aside the question of whether the system was ever necessary. Finally, he could suspend the deal and direct the Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar to review the deal, eventually leading to a determination that a NATO inter-operable system or no system at this time was a better choice for Turkey’s defence needs. In essence, this last option was used several years ago to scuttle the planned acquisition of a Chinese air and missile defence system.
Going ahead with acquisition will seriously harm the Turkish economy and national security. Erdoğan has changed course in the past; he could do so again to put the interests of his nation ahead of his personal desire to tilt Turkey away from the West.