U.S.-Turkish S-400 crisis underpinned by Erdoğan’s coup fear - Washington panel

Turkey and the United States are undergoing the worst crisis in their relations since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, experts said at a panel at Johns Hopkins University on Thursday.

The rift may have been deepened by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fear of being overthrown in a coup, experts said at the “Tensions with Turkey” discussion, moderated by Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Turkey’s purchase of Russian-built S-400 missile defence systems brought the diplomatic crisis to a head in July, when the first S-400s began arriving near Ankara.

Washington has removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet programme, and there is bipartisan agreement at the U.S. Congress that measures should be imposed against the country under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, 2017 legislation designed to discourage third parties’ defence partnerships with Russia.

U.S. and NATO officials believe the presence of the S-400s could allow Moscow to gain sensitive information on NATO systems through subterfuge. Turkish officials have denied that the Russian hardware will pose a threat.

Panelist Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, said the decision to buy the S-400s may have been motivated by their ability to target U.S.-built F-16 fighters that currently make up the bulk of Turkey’s air force.

Erdoğan survived a coup attempt in July 2016, when military factions believed to be linked to the outlawed Gülen religious movement took key points in Turkish cities and sent a team of commandos to the hotel the president was staying at. F-16s flown by the rebels reportedly had Erdoğan’s jet in their sights during the night of the coup.

The fear of a repeat of the 2016 coup attempt could be a major factor in Erdoğan’s decision to buy the S-400s even though he appears to have the higher ranks of the military on side, Edelman said.

“There is very little we know about the Colonels and below,” Edelman said. A successful coup was carried out in 1960 against Prime Minister Adnan Menderes by lower-ranking officers.

Erdoğan may want the S-400s “because it is a system that can shoot down the F-16s,” he said.

“We are now in very much the situation like in the 1960s. Because the senior officer class is thoroughly remade in AKP's image, but it is a very large military establishment and beneath the surface at the colonel level and below I think we do not know, and I think he is fearful," he said.

Another panellist, Center for American Progress senior fellow Alan Makovsky, said the growing dissatisfaction among Turks with Erdoğan’s rule makes the possibility of another coup attempt a possibility that should not be dismissed.

"We don't know the Turkish army. Before [the failed] coup attempt, the most people thought that the Turkish military as the last bastion of the secularism, Kemalism and there was virtually nobody thought Gulenist influence in the military,” Makovsky said.

“My biggest worry is that Erdogan is becoming unpopular, the economy in a tailspin but there is no way to get to new election until 2023. There is a new system in Turkey that makes it very difficult for an early election,” he said.

Under the new executive presidential system inaugurated after last year’s elections, parliamentary and presidential elections must be held at the same time. Since the system also places a two-term cap on the presidency, Erdoğan is unlikely under most circumstances to call snap elections, even if his ruling coalition loses its majority in parliament.

The next elections are due in 2023, but Turkey’s weak economic performance was reflected in major losses to the opposition in local elections this year, and dissent is growing within the ruling party.

This, Makovsky explained, puts Turkey in a "very difficult stalemate" which would be a “formula for extralegal action”.

One of two U.S. initiatives to ease tensions with Turkey outlined by Edelman could provide some relief on the economic front, as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration works on a free trade agreement with a goal of increasing trade volume from its current $20-billion level to $100 billion.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was in Turkey for a week in September working towards the agreement.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a frequent interlocutor with Turkish officials, has been tasked with seeking a solution to the S-400 crisis, Edelman said.

Graham is looking to come up with a variant of a deal worked out by the United States and Cyprus in the 1990s, when Nicosia bought S-300 missile defence systems from Russia. The systems were stored on Crete to resolve a confrontation between Cyprus and Turkey over the purchase.

A similar deal would allow Ankara to fulfil its obligation to buy the Russian missile systems, and also purchase U.S. Patriot systems, said Edelman.

Nevertheless, the poor relations between the two countries are likely to continue at a low point because Turkey has virtually no allies in Washington, said Gönül Tol, the director of the Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies.

On the other side, anti-U.S. feeling is so strong in Turkey’s halls of power that any military officer who takes a pro-U.S. line is likely putting their career in danger, Tol said.

CAATSA sanctions are only likely to push Turkey further to the Russian camp, she said. This is likely the reason that Trump has held off on moving to impose the sanctions, according to Makovsky, who noted that the lack of a timetable and other “holes” in the sanctions made it possible for the president to avoid imposing them.

Even so, the traffic of delegations between the countries is “far from the reality on the ground” and unlikely to make a real impact on U.S.-Turkish relations due to the lack of institutional backing, said Sinan Ciddi, the director of of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University.

"Turkey is changed so vastly in terms of structural arrangements and how decisions are made," Ciddi said, adding that Erdoğan had risen to an unrivalled position as a decision maker in the country.

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