When Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced in September 2017 Ankara’s intentions to purchase Russian-manufactured S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, few believed the deal would materialize given the shaky relations that Ankara and Moscow enjoyed at the time. Indeed, relations nearly reached a boiling point on November 2015 after Turkish F-16 fighter jets shot down Russian Su-24 aircraft near the Syria-Turkish border. Moreover, since 2015, both countries have been pursuing diametrically opposing agendas in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, Moscow has allied itself with Assad whereas Ankara supports the Free Syrian Army.
Erdoğan has refused to yield to repeated pressure from Washington to rollback its S-400 purchase policy. Former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan communicated to his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, the steps Pentagon will be taking to stop Turkey from participating in the F-35 fighter program if it fails to cancel its S-400 purchase. This stance against Turkey buying Russian weapons is a view shared by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Tod Wolters. There is little evidence, however, that such actions will have any significant impact on Ankara’s course in the future. To the contrary, Turkey’s defense minister suggested in May that Ankara is prepared to face U.S sanctions under Washington’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Additionally, President Erdoğan insists that there will be “no step back” will be taken vis-à-vis S-400.
Where Does All This Lead Us?
Proposed American sanctions against a NATO ally is a recipe for disaster. Indeed, excluding Turkey from acquiring the F-35 can only: a) isolate Turkey from NATO during a critical time of Middle East instability and b) push Ankara closer towards Moscow. Further, Moscow’s proposal to sell its very own fifth-generation Su-57 fighter to Ankara as an alternative to F-35 jets is another problem.
What Alternatives are Left?
The answer is bold politics. In the March 31 municipal elections, ruling AKP party suffered great defeat in important cities across the country but most importantly in Istanbul and Ankara, Erdoğan’s strongholds. In the aftermath of the elections, Erdoğan attributed his defeat to his archenemy, the Islamic preacher and fugitive, Fethullah Gülen. Erdogan also accuses Gülen of being behind the failed coup attempt in 2016, which Gülen vehemently denies.
As political uncertainty over the future of AKP rule mounts, Erdoğan—the central authority in Turkey for the past fifteen years—will need to seek political solutions which can guarantee his future and the future of his AKP party. For Erdoğan, Gülen—and the Gülen Movement—is the opposition which just so happens to reside near Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.
As recent reports suggest, Ankara intends on deploying the S-400 on its southern coast, relatively close to where its warships are accompanying vessels exploring energy sources within EU member state Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Ankara’s repeated threats that it will continue pursuing its drilling plans have prompted the Greek-Cypriot administration to rush strike deals with Shell, Noble and Delek, regarding the distribution of revenues from natural gas exploration from the Aphrodite field in the eastern Mediterranean.
On the other hand, Erdoğan has refused to consider the deal a fait accompli and vowed to protect the interests of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—which Ankara set up after the Turks militarily intervened in 1974 following a coup that installed a Greek-Cypriot government that supported unification with Greece. All this, however, comes at a time when the Turkish economy is struggling. The lira is plunging in value, Turks suffer from high inflation and rising borrowing costs, and face natural gas prices up by as much as 14 percent (9 percent for residential use and 14 percent for industrial).
To make things worse for Turkey, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Wess Mitchell, warned Turkey over the harassment of floating drills in the EEZ. Meanwhile, Rep. Ted Deutch, Rep. David Cicilline and Rep. Gus Bilirakis introduced in May a bipartisan Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 which would include lifting an existing embargo on arms transfers to the Republic of Cyprus.
The United States is in a unique position to engage Turkey, Cyprus and Greece in a broader conversation about security in the eastern Mediterranean, ironic as it may be given the present circumstances. Instead of adopting a short-term one-sided approach—which arguably translates as containment in the long run—Washington must bring to the table all the actors, and most importantly Cypriot-Turk leaders. America must help set goals, priorities and a vision—all of which have been lacking. The decision by a NATO member state to acquire S-400 technology should lay the foundation for meaningful debates between strategic allies—not punitive measures which can harm NATO in its totality.
The Syrian conflict has revealed other inconvenient truths. One that is striking, however, is the difference in how Ankara and Washington approach the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). For Ankara, the YPG is nothing but a terrorist group, an armed wing of the Democratic Union Party and a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party which historically waged a decades-long war against Turkey. For Washington on the other hand, YPG represents one of the staunchest and most effective allies in fighting ISIS in northern Syria.
President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw two thousand troops and while also seeking assurances from Turkey it would not attack Kurdish fighters in the region remains a highly flawed policy. Difficult as it may be, the United States should reverse its plan on troop withdrawal while at the same time seeking assurances and holding accountable YPG leadership if it endangers Turkey’s security.
Klaudio Llusku is an International Relations analyst. Klaudio has worked alongside multiple private, NGO and government organizations where he covered areas such as refugee crisis, Southeast Europe, Middle East and Russia’s politics and foreign policy. He is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London with a master’s in Politics, Security and Integration.