Turkey silent after U.S. sets S-400 deadline

For an administration that tends to answer every slight from a foreign actor with a robust, even aggressive, response, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has remained uncharacteristically silent since last week’s warning letter from U.S. Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

Shanahan’s letter gave the Turkish government a last chance to reverse course on its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, and also listed the measures the United States would take to remove Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet programme if it goes through with the deal. 

The letter touched on the other measures Turkey is likely to face if it buys the S-400s, including sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

The letter, sent to Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar on June 6, set a deadline of July 31 for Turkey to pull out of the S-400 deal, and the listing of measures, including possible sanctions that do not come under Shanahan’s purview, have been interpreted as an explicit threat to Turkey.

In the face of this, Erdoğan’s spokesperson İbrahim Kalın has kept markedly quiet. Even more remarkable has been the silence of Fahrettin Altun, the chief of the Communications Directorate of the Turkish Presidency, who has been quick in recent instances to condemn foreign actors deemed to have disrespected the republic.

A Defence Ministry statement only said that Shanahan’s letter “expresses the expectation of finding a solution to the existing problems within the framework of strategic partnership and maintaining the comprehensive security cooperation and emphasises the importance of continuing negotiations”. 

There was no reference to the letter’s warning that the S-400 purchase would damage Turkey’s cooperation with the United States and NATO, lead to over-dependence on Russia, undermine Turkey’s defence industry and economic goals, “cause a loss in jobs, gross domestic product, and international trade”, and lead to CAATSA sanctions.

During another diplomatic row in January, Trump threatened to “devastate” Turkey’s economy if it attacked U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in Syria. The United States has repeated the threat with Shanahan’s letter in more diplomatic terms, but with detail that makes it even starker.

Meanwhile, as Turkey maintained its silence on the letter, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Erdoğan for his resistance to U.S. pressure on the deal, and Sergei Chemezov, the head of Russian state defence firm Rostec, told said delivery of the S-400s would begin in August.

Chemezov added that credit for the deal had already been secured and spent on the S-400 equipment. In other words, Turkey can do what it likes with the S-400 systems, but its payments to Russia have already been made and it still owes the remainder of the reported $2.5 billion the two countries agreed on in December 2017.

So, Turkey is caught between a rock and a hard place on account of the S-400 purchase, and faces repercussions from Moscow or Washington whichever path it chooses by the July 31 deadline set in Shanahan’s letter.

That deadline does not appear to have been chosen by accident. As well as falling around the time Turkey is scheduled to begin receiving delivery of the S-400 systems, it also falls almost exactly a year after Trump caused havoc in Turkey’s economy over another diplomatic crisis.

It was on August 1, 2018 that Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey for its imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who had been arrested on terrorism charges after a failed coup attempt in 2016.

The sanctions triggered a sudden, steep currency slide that brought the lira from around 5 against the dollar at the beginning of the month to 7.2 against the dollar within weeks. The slide forced Turkey’s central bank to raise interest rates, which have not been lower than 24 percent since then.

With the July 31 deadline calling to mind the havoc last August, eyes are fixed on how Shanahan’s letter will impact Turkey’s economy.

One more issue that has raised eyebrows is Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia. The two regional powers have been on opposite sides in disputes and conflicts from Qatar to Libya, and their relations have soured especially after a team widely thought to have been sent by the Saudi government murdered Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October last year.

Erdoğan kept the murder on the world’s agenda for months as evidence, including tapes believed to have recorded Khashoggi’s final moments, were gradually released by Turkish intelligence sources.

But this is another issue Turkey’s president has kept silent on this year. Erdoğan snubbed the ceremony to hand over chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to Saudi Arabia in May, but he did hold a phone conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, their second since the Khashoggi murder. 

This has raised speculation that the Turkish president is looking to mend some of the damage with Saudi Arabia, as Saudi boycotts continue to harm Turkish exports, real estate sales and tourism. 

All this means that the G20 summit in Japan on June 28 will be an especially crucial one for Turkey, as Erdoğan could come face to face with Trump as the S-400 deadline closes in, but could also meet the Saudi crown prince.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.