Recent Patriot offer to Ankara, why now?
As presumably one of the most difficult years in the history of Turkish-American relations was about to end, Washington made a bold move to lead the game in a possible S-400 crisis, which carries the potential to poison the relatively upbeat atmosphere mostly deriving from the personal relationship between two presidents. On Dec. 18, the State Department approved a possible sale of the Patriot air and missile defense system to Turkey for an estimated total of $3.5 billion.
Although this announcement was not more than a formal expression of the intent of the Trump administration to sell Patriots to Turkey, it confirmed two things. First, the announcement meant that the general framework of the last Patriot offer tabled by the Americans was acceptable for Ankara. It is worth recalling that Turks had turned down a former Patriot offer back in 2009 for not having access to technology transfer. Secondly, the announcement also meant that the Department of State and the Pentagon had informed the Congress beforehand and, at this stage, managed to prevent possible objections from the lawmakers.
The timing of the offer deserves special attention. It provided the Americans a decent timeframe of almost six months for a bargain before the Russian S-400 missile system is brought to Turkey in the summer of 2019. The timing of the announcement was also carefully studied by the U.S. bureaucracy with an effort to obviate the newly sworn-in Congress preventing a Patriot offer to Turkey. The objection period for the Congress against any military sale to a NATO member country is 15 days. That period passed on Jan. 2, only a day before the new legislative term started at the Congress with new-elected members officially filling their seats.
What the U.S. administration essentially aims with this new Patriot offer is to rule out a primary argument of the Turks, who in defense of the S-400 deal kept accusing the Americans of pushing Ankara towards taking an alternative offer by Moscow to fulfill its defense needs because fellow NATO countries declined to assist.
The same message was communicated to the members of the outgoing U.S. Congress and somewhat worked.
The new House of Representatives evidently will try to have more of a say in foreign policy making with an effort to restrict President Donald Trump’s hand. Furthermore, although the Senate majority still belongs to the GOP, the number of Republican senators who openly oppose the president’s judgments has considerably gone up after witnessing Trump’s reluctance to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In the meantime, the anti-Turkey mood in Congress has never really died out despite the warm atmosphere in personal relations between Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There was a brief moment of tension relief in Washington after pastor Andrew Brunson was finally freed and allowed to return to the United States in October last year. Ankara had also won the moral high ground with the position it has taken vis-à-vis the Saudi regime in the early weeks following Khashoggi’s murder. However, that momentum seems to have been lost now with the Syria story putting Turkey under the spotlight as the troublemaker once again.
Most American lawmakers tend to believe that the threats of Erdoğan to attack the east of the Euphrates have been instrumental in forcing Trump for a hasty decision on withdrawal from Syria.
In every conversation since former President Barack Obama, Erdoğan has been asking Washington to cease cooperation with the YPG, which Ankara considers as the Syrian branch of the PKK. However, to this day, the YPG has been the key component of the U.S.-backed SDF.
In order to understand how much sympathy the YPG Kurds has raised in American politics for knocking down jihadists, as Trump would put it, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s case is a striking one. Even Graham, whom the Turks saw among a few lawmakers in Washington to understand the link between the YPG and the PKK, today talks about the need to prevent Turkey from “slaughtering the Syrian Kurds.” Under such circumstances it will not be easy to convince Congress to approve a major military sale to Turkey.
The U.S. Congress has the final say, whereas the fate of the Patriot offer will essentially depend on how Ankara will play this game.
If Turkey wants to purchase the Patriots, then it has two options. First is to drop the S-400 agreement with Moscow, which seems less likely especially at a time when Turks will need deeper cooperation with Russians in Syria following the U.S. withdrawal. Second is to convince the Americans that the S-400 batteries would not be installed and kept in storage. Though, I do not see how this would work once the S-400 radar is brought to Turkish soil, which is the real source of concern for the U.S.
In any case, the Trump administration has almost zero chance to get Congress’ approval without inserting the S-400 condition into a possible Patriot agreement with Ankara. How that condition might be expressed will evidently hinge upon the developments in two separate axes: Moscow-Ankara and Washington-Ankara.
2018 was the year when U.S. politics tied the fate of the F-35 fighter jets, which Turkey has paid for, to the purchase of the S-400s. In 2019, both the arrival of the first two F-35s to Turkey and a possible agreement on the Patriot missile systems will be contingent upon Ankara’s final decision on the S-400s. Washington will not consider Ankara’s choice merely as a decision based on daily needs for military equipment but rather as a critical development that will either mark Turkey’s existing place in the world order or re-define it.