Time running short in missile row between Turkey and US
ISTANBUL - With the delivery of the first components of a Russian missile defence system to NATO member Turkey just weeks away, time is running short to resolve a row over the deal that triggered doubts about Ankara’s commitment to remain a part of the West.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan angered Europe and the United States by insisting on buying two Russian S-400 batteries for about $2.5 billion, despite warnings that the system could put NATO assets at risk and would push Turkey out of the integrated defence network of the alliance. Reports said sections of the Russian system could arrive in Turkey as early as June.
To defuse the situation, Erdogan used a telephone call with US President Donald Trump to repeat his proposal to establish a joint committee to look into the Russian system, the Turkish presidency said.
The United States argues the S-400 is incompatible with NATO’s defence system and could compromise its F-35 fighter jets. Some US politicians have called for Turkey to be excluded from the project to build the aircraft.
Erdogan said the project would “collapse completely” without Turkey, which produces parts of the fuselage, landing gear and cockpit displays. Reuters, however, quoted sources familiar with the F-35’s production process and US thinking on the issue as saying that Turkey’s role could be replaced.
The row over the S-400 and the F-35 has turned into a debate about whether Turkey is a reliable partner for the West. US and European officials warned that Ankara is moving too close to Russia, seen as an hostile power by NATO, while Turkey says it has been treated unfairly by its allies.
Martin Erdmann, Germany’s ambassador to Turkey, speaking at a security conference in Istanbul, said Germany regarded Turkey’s S-400 deal “with great concern.” He said that, while every NATO country was free to buy weapons of its choice, Turkey had to “expect consequences” if it insisted on the S-400.
“It is important for us that Turkey remains firmly anchored in the Western alliance,” Erdmann said.
Erdogan’s spokesman and foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin, appearing before the same conference, said Turkey was obliged to buy the S-400 because Washington refused to allow technology transfers sought by Ankara in a possible delivery of the US Patriot system.
“The decision to purchase the S-400 was not made overnight,” Kalin said. Turkey’s security concerns on the Syrian border and elsewhere had not been taken seriously by the United States and Europe, he said. Turkey faced the accusation of moving away from the West.
Kalin said Ankara had received no answer from the United States to its proposal to have experts determine whether the S-400 would be a threat to NATO assets, such as the F-35.
“Turkey is part of the Western security architecture but it takes two to tango,” Kalin said at the conference organised by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a think-tank close to the Christian Democrat Union, the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “You cannot expect Turkey to do everything and then, when everything fails, put the blame on Turkey.”
Some observers said Turkey could reverse the S-400 decision and buy a Western missile defence system. “I think they are just bluffing,” said one European lawmaker at the conference.
Turkey faces increasing scepticism in the US Congress, where some members have been outspoken about risks the Turkish S-400 deal poses for the F-35 programme. They say the S-400 could enable Moscow to spy on the F-35, the West’s most advanced jet fighter. Some in Congress questioned whether Turkey could remain a member of NATO if the S-400 deal goes ahead.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and several senators warned Turkey it would face penalties for buying S-400s under a law that calls for sanctions against countries procuring military equipment from Russia. Turkey said that, as a NATO member, it poses no threat to the United States and the sanctions should not apply.
US sanctions against Ankara introduced last year in a spat over the imprisonment of an American pastor in Turkey helped push the value of the Turkish lira to a record low. US measures over the S-400 row could have even bigger consequences for the Turkish economy, which is already in recession.
“Washington threatens to bring its relations with Ankara to the point of collapse,” columnist Yahya Bostan wrote in the pro-Erdogan Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah.
The S-400 feud adds to a list of differences between Turkey and the United States. One hot spot is the Syrian conflict, where Turkey cooperates closely with Russia and Iran and is critical of US policies.
Ankara accused Washington of supporting terrorists because of US support for the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) militia in northern Syria. Turkey regards the YPG as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish militant group seen as a terrorist organisation by Ankara and much of the international community.
It was “deadly wrong for our American colleagues” to cooperate with YPG, Kalin said during the Istanbul conference.
The two countries are also at odds over Iran. Washington has told Turkey and other buyers of Iranian oil that exemptions from sanctions for countries that keep importing crude from Iran will end in early May. Turkey said it rejects any effort by the United States to tell Ankara how to conduct its relations with a neighbouring country like Iran.