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Apr 13 2019

United States and Turkey in tough diplomatic tussle over air defence

Two NATO allies, Turkey and the United States, are engaged in a tough diplomatic tussle over two important components of air defence: attack and defence. The attack element is the latest, most advanced fighter aircraft, the F-35, co-produced by several NATO countries, including Turkey. The other is an air defence system, the S-400, developed by Russia, which is regarded as the most efficient air defence system in the world. 

This controversy is only one of several problematic issues between the two NATO allies, but at present it is the hottest one. 

The United States says it will be risky to deliver the F-35s to a country that possesses an air defence system such as the S-400, because it may identify F-35’s weaknesses and Russian experts may have access to this sensitive information. 

The background of this controversy goes back several years. During the height of the Syrian crisis, Turkey asked NATO to deploy Patriot missiles to protect it against a possible attack from Syria. The missiles were deployed in Turkey for a while, but were withdrawn at a time when Turkey thought it was still exposed to the risk. Ankara therefore decided to acquire a state-of-the art air defence system and not be left to the mercy of its allies. It asked the United States and Russia to submit offers. 

The United States, with a view to preventing Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-manufactured S-400 air defence system, proposed selling Turkey Patriot missiles for $3.5 billion. Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said: “We made our best possible proposal, by offering fresh batteries, advanced air defence missiles and bilateral coordination on industrial and system development aspects of the programme.” Russia offered to sell the S-400 system for $2.5 billion. 

As a result of the big price difference, Turkey decided to buy the S-400s. 

The United States reacted furiously, but Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said last week at a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Washington the S-400 purchase was a “done deal” and there was no question of stepping back. Instead, he proposed setting up a technical committee to look into the details of the risk that the F-35s would be exposed to in case Turkey deploys the S-400 system. The answer given by Pahon to this proposal was: “A technical working group at this stage isn’t necessary or a path the U.S. is even considering as a resolution. We have been clear with Turkey at all levels - the S-400 is a threat to the F-35 programme and the safety of our NATO allies.”

The United States is sending contradicting messages to Turkey: On the one hand, it maintains on course the Turkish pilots’ training program for the F-35. Furthermore, last week, it delivered a third F-35 to Turkey. These gestures are probably done in the hope that Turkey will give up its insistence on the S-400 deployment. On the other hand, it uses all means to dissuade Turkey from purchasing the Russian system. It threatens to impose economic sanctions under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), which may deal a heavy blow to Turkey’s economy in the present volatile post-election era.

The threats also cover Turkey’s intended military action in Syria. In a statement attributed to the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he has warned Turkey of “the potential devastating consequences of a unilateral military action”. This threat was contained in a U.S. State Department statement summarising talks held in Washington between Pompeo and Çavuşoğlu. The Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman said that such a subject was not even raised during the meeting, but Pompeo said that he was behind every word contained in the State Department statement. If Pompeo says that he is behind every word, there is no point in discussing whether he in fact has spelled out these words. 

The U.S. pressure continues beyond Pentagon and the State Department’s statements. Congressmen last month sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee asking to pass a law that would prevent the allocation of funds to deliver F-35s to Turkey, if Ankara goes ahead with the S-400 deal.  

Turkish-U.S. relations are definitely moving towards a bottleneck. It would be a nice surprise if further a deterioration of the relations can be avoided.  

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