Why U.S.-Turkey Tensions Were Never About the S-400 Missile System

March 31, 2021 Topic: S-400 Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: TurkeyAmericaS-400RussiaIraqMilitary

Why U.S.-Turkey Tensions Were Never About the S-400 Missile System

There are many longstanding causes of the widening rift between Ankara and Washington and the view from Turkey is one of frustration and anger.

The current crisis between the United States and Turkey is the result of America’s ever-growing frustration with Turkey which began particularly in the early 2000s, when Turkey began to increasingly pursue an independent foreign policy, which has not necessarily been in line with Washington’s perceived interests. Simply put, the more Ankara resisted America’s demands, the more Washington dialed up pressure. The S-400 crisis is only the latest manifestation of this vicious cycle and is also a clear indication that Washington is on the verge of completely losing its grip on Turkey as seen by the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu’s firm affirmation last week that, “It (the S-400 purchase) is a done deal.”

The signs of Turkey’s growing defiance to the United States began to mount as the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) single party government took office around the same time America was preparing for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Having already suffered the political, economic, and social toll of the U.S.-led Gulf War of 1991, Turkey, under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s single party government in March of 2003, rejected Washington’s request to use Turkish soil to open a northern front into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. This infuriated the Bush Administration which then pushed for a more military-focused foreign policy. Unfortunately, that policy would plant the seeds of discord that have greatly shaped the bilateral relations to this day. In his book, Decision Points, Bush said, “I was frustrated and disappointed. On one of the most important requests we had ever made, Turkey, our NATO ally had let America down.” Then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld blamed the success of the Sunni insurgency and the subsequent American losses squarely on Turkey’s refusal to cooperate.

In July 2003, some 150 members of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade arrested 18 Turkish commandos in the city of Sulaymaniyah for allegedly plotting the assassination of the newly-elected Iraqi-Kurdish governor of Kirkuk. What made it even more maddening for Turks is the commandos were arrested and hoods put over their heads, a sign of disrespect. That incident, now called “the Hood Event,” perhaps marked the beginning of the ‘Pentagonization’, whereby the Pentagon, particularly the Central Command (CENTCOM), (rather than the more level-headed State Department) began to define policies towards Turkey, throwing the bilateral relations into an uncontrollable downward spiral. 

The eruption of the Syrian Civil war in 2011 further deepened the ever-growing division between the two “allies,” also highlighting Washington’s ineptitude dealing with the crisis. The Obama Administration was so confused with respect to Syria that various U.S. agencies began to support different opposition groups, each having different agendas. Whereas, the Central Intelligence Agency began to train and equip the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a Turkey-aligned Sunni opposition group, the Pentagon (CENTOM) did not hesitate to take steps that would enrage Turkey by propping up the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey has repeatedly stated is a branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a group considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Turkey. Ankara’s repeated appeals to Washington to drop its support for YPG yielded nothing. To make things even worse for Turkey, the United States, at the height of the civil war, decided to pull its Patriot air and missile defense systems from Turkey’s Syrian border, leaving Turkey vulnerable. In addition, Washington turned a deaf ear to Turkey’s subsequent pleas to purchase the Patriot. When Ankara finally received an answer from Washington, it was seventeen months too late and even then, America would not allow the transfer of th military technology transfer in order for Turkey to control the missiles they wanted to buy.    

Having felt abandoned by Washington, Turkey felt that it had no choice but to turn to Russia for help, which Putin gladly provided, seizing the opportunity to undermine the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). When Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War and opened up Syrian air space, Turkey was able to create a safe zone in much of the area west of the Euphrates, fulfilling a demand by Ankara that Washington had repeatedly stalled on. Furthermore, Putin offered something that cemented Turkey’s near-complete departure from the U.S. orbit; the S-400 air defense system. Despite Washington’s repeated pleas against the deal, the first batch of S-400s landed in Turkey in July 2019. Ankara now learned that it could implement policies that may run counter to Washington’s liking, and still get away with them. With this in mind, Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring east of the Euphrates in October 2019, effectively dislodging the American proxy, YPG, from its border and pushing them deeper into the Syrian Desert. CENTCOM was so furious at this that the American soldiers held the strategic city of Manbij to prevent the Turks from taking it and later handed it to the Russians.  

Washington’s current frustration with Turkey has deep roots that are decades old, but more importantly, it is a clear indication of rapidly declining American power. Gone are the days such as in 1991, when the United States could mount a unanimous global coalition and could assemble an army of more than 500,000 American soldiers. Today, America is reduced to having to rely on the YPG militia, which, in fact, it has had to share with Russia and Iran. Washington’s threats of sanctions on Germany over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has not seemed to deter Berlin from completing the project with Russia. Furthermore, having seen that Turkey emerged relatively unharmed from the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions, India now feels emboldened to complete the acquisition of their own S-400s despite Washington’s warnings. In early 2021, the first Indian military team received training on S-400s. On top of everything, at a time when America’s deterrence in the Pacific is seriously questioned, the Chinese delegates were able to humiliate their U.S. counterparts on American soil, at the summit in Anchorage, without worrying about the consequences of their actions. 

It is a mere misjudgment to attribute the current U.S.-Turkish acrimony to the S-400s. Traditionally, America’s perceived interests and Turkey’s security concerns in the Middle East have collided. Washington’s inability to manage Turkey’s actions—and the resulting frustration in—has increased Washington’s desire to adopt a punitive approach, which has met with Ankara’s obstinance. Turkey’s ascendence in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Libya, in Syria, in Iraq and the Caucasus, corresponds with the steady decline of America and its world order. That is why it is a mistake for the Biden Administration to attempt the much anticipated “taming” of Turkey since it will more than likely not be able to deliver the results Washington wants. The only bullet left for Biden to hurt Turkey appears to be the recognition, possibly on April 24, of the 1915 events with the Armenians as a genocide. Such a move is only going to serve to increase the anti-American sentiment in Turkey and nothing else will be gained from it.

As China is poised to replace America as global hegemon, threatening its very economic and political well-being, it is perhaps time for the policymakers in Washington to stop wasting precious energy by alienating such allies as Turkey, by being obsessed with a tour de force, and come to terms with the limits of American power.

Ali Demirdas, Ph.D. in political science from the University of South Carolina, Fulbright scholar, professor of international affairs at the College of Charleston(2011—2018). You can follow him on Twitter @DrDemirdasEn

Image: Reuters.