Turkey-US ties knotted over F-35, S-400 rift
The day after U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ June 11 statement about Turkish and American teams coming together in Germany next week to decide how to implement a security roadmap in the Syrian town of Manbij, a group of Senators asked the Donald trump administration to impose sanctions on Turkey due to lack of religious freedoms.
That was the second such demand in two weeks, following one to remove Turkey from the joint production of the new generation F-35 jet fighters. It was based on two main points: One was the continued arrest of American pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey, the other was Ankara’s decision to buy Russian S-400 air defense systems. The senators claim that the S-400s were designed to hunt new-type NATO platforms such as the F-35s and would therefore be a breach of NATO security by the Russians.
The S-400s are not NATO interoperable. Ankara knows that. The Turkish military also knows that the inclusion of the S-400s in Turkey’s air defense - even if not plugged into the NATO systems - could open holes in both national and NATO defense. But President Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly said Turkey has been forced to buy Russian systems because the Americans have been declining to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey. The Turkish government is in talks for the joint production of the NATO-interoperable, French-Italian production Euromissile Astor-30 systems for the medium term, but until then Ankara says it needs to strengthen its air defense amid ongoing wars across its borders.
After a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in Washington on June 4, diplomatic sources told the Hürriyet Daily News that the Americans had asked the Turks not to use the S-400s at all, even if they do end up buying them from the Russians (in a deal that is worth some $2.5 billion).
In a way, that is Washington’s answer to Ankara’s pointing out of the fact that NATO member Greece once bought Russian S-300s. That is because it is reported that the Greek S-300s have not been taken into service and are instead being kept in a military depot on the island of Crete. But it is no cure to Turkish security concerns, which were acknowledged by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during his visit to Ankara last month. The Turkish government keeps saying that if the Americans and NATO allies do not want them to take Russian air defense missiles into service, they have to come up with immediate alternatives for Turkish needs.
This is far from the only problem between the two NATO allies. Another big one is the U.S.’s ongoing partnership with the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That partnership may be moderated after the anticipated implementation of the Manbij roadmap, which involves evacuating YPG militia from the town. Another major problem is the continued residence of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen in Pennsylvania. Gülen is accused of masterminding Turkey’s June 2016 military coup attempt through his illegal network in government agencies, and prosecutors now refer to his network as the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ). Because of those rifts Erdoğan has been losing sympathy in the U.S. capital for some time, which also becomes something of a lack of sympathy for Turkey.
The U.S. had imposed an arms embargo on Turkey in 1975, right after Ankara’s military intervention into Cyprus to protect Turks there from a right-wing Greek coup 1974. The embargo was also justified by a rift at the time over opium farming in Turkey. Ankara’s answer was to close down all military facilities in Turkey to U.S. use (though not to NATO use) until 1978, including the strategic air base of İncirlik in the southern province of Adana. Today, in addition to İncirlik there is another strategic NATO/American asset in Turkey: The early warning radar site of the global Missile Shield system in Kürecik, again in south of the country, which is linked to defense missile sites in Poland and Romania. The system is the newest strategic initiative to protect Europe and North America from a possible long-range missile attack from the east and south of NATO alliance.
Some observers have been questioning whether it actually matters if the Americans no longer see Turkey as an ally; but they should perhaps also ask whether it is worth losing Turkey for short-term tactical targets.