Missile defence system sparks US-Russia tensions in Middle East
LONDON/WASHINGTON - Plans by Turkey, a NATO member, and Qatar, home of the largest US military facility in the Middle East, to buy a Russian missile defence system pose a new challenge by Moscow to US positions and influence in the region.
Ankara and Doha are in talks with the Russian government to buy S-400 missile defence batteries rather than the US Patriot system.
The situation has the potential to sour relations between the United States and Turkey and adds a military dimension to tensions between Gulf Cooperation Council countries, experts said.
In a region riddled with underlying tensions, Russia has been aggressively promoting the S-400 in the Middle East.
The Trump administration warned countries against acquiring the S-400 defence system but that has not been a deterrent. Moscow has potential S-400 deals with Saudi Arabia, India and Turkey
Ankara is in advanced stages of talks about the S-400. Washington wants Turkey to buy the Patriot system instead, arguing that the Russian system would not be compatible with NATO weaponry and might give Russia a chance to spy on Western military technology, such as the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The United States, where both parties in the US Congress have expressed concern about Turkey’s S-400 deal, has put delivery of F-35s to Ankara on hold.
“We’ve clearly warned Turkey that its potential acquisition of the S-400 will result in a reassessment of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 programme and risk other potential future arm transfers to Turkey, as well as lead to potential sanctions,” US State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said.
US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, head of US European Command, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that he was concerned about offering one of America’s most advanced systems to a country willing to use Russian equipment, implying that the Russians could gain access to the planes.
US Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, agreed, posting on social media: “We have spent billions on developing the F-35. If we don’t stop Turkey from getting the F-35, we might as well hand the blueprints to the Russians.”
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer and James Jeffrey, Washington’s Syria envoy, travelled to Ankara for talks but no details were available.
Russia benefits from any political disputes between Turkey and US allies because it can use them to undermine trust and unity, Scaparrotti warned previously.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would not go back on the Russian missile project. “The S-400 is over for us,” Erdogan said in a report by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. “We have an agreement with Russia now, we will start joint production. Maybe we will get into a S-500 [system] after the S-400.”
Experts said the S-400 row could develop into a major crisis between the United States and Turkey.
Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank, said: “I disagree with the optimists who see the current noise as simply a bargaining ploy of the Turkish president. Erdogan is beyond the point of no return” on the S-400 issue.”
In Doha, the S-400 issue featured in talks between Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdulrahman al-Thani and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Thani described Doha’s efforts to expand military ties with Moscow as “a sovereign decision” that did not concern any other country.
“There is a discussion over the procurement of various military equipment from Russia,” he said, adding that no deal has been finalised over the S-400.
French newspaper Le Monde reported last June that Saudi Arabia had threatened to attack the Russian S-400 defence system if deployed by Qatar.
“The kingdom would be ready to take all necessary measures to eliminate this defence system, including military action,” Le Monde quoted Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as saying a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar earlier this year to expand Al Udeid Airbase, south of Doha. It hosts the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command and some 10,000 American troops.
Regionally, Qatar has been isolated since June 2017, when the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic, transport and trade ties with the small Gulf Arab state over accusations of support for Islamist extremists and its ties to Iran.