Turkey’s optimism about resolving Russian missile row with US may be misplaced

Trump is facing rising bipartisan pressure from Congress, which has been a driving force behind the effort to get Turkey to forgo the S-400 and buy the US-made Patriot missile-defence system instead.
Saturday 06/07/2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue in Ankara, last May. (AP)
Misinterpreting the message. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue in Ankara, last May. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Turkey’s optimism that the dispute over its plans to deploy a Russian missile defence system will blow over without political turbulence and without economic sanctions by the United States may be misplaced, analysts and officials said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is determined to get the Russian S-400 system to Turkey despite warnings by the United States, a NATO partner, that Ankara could face sanctions if delivery takes place. On July 4, Erdogan’s spokesman said the Russian system would arrive within days.

The United States said the S-400s would compromise its F-35 joint strike fighter jets, of which Turkey is a producer and buyer. Washington has started the process of expelling Turkey from the F-35 programme, halting the training of Turkish pilots in the United States.

Buying military equipment from Russia leaves Turkey vulnerable to US retribution under a 2017 law known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

The contract to buy two S-400 batteries for $2.5 billion, signed in December 2017, also raised concerns that Turkey is moving away from its traditional ties with the West in favour of closer relationship with Russia. The two countries have formed a partnership in the Syrian conflict, much to the alarm of Western governments.

US President Donald Trump is facing rising bipartisan pressure from Congress, which has been a driving force behind the effort to get Turkey to forgo the S-400 and buy the US-made Patriot missile-defence system instead, Bloomberg News reported.

However, on June 29, Erdogan said Trump told him on the sidelines of the G20 summit there would be no sanctions because of the Russian deal, after Trump said Turkey had been treated unfairly over the move. Erdogan said he believed the dispute would be overcome “without a problem,” Turkish news reports said.

The dispute unnerved investors and led to a drop in the value of the Turkish lira earlier this year. The reported accord between Erdogan and Trump strengthened the lira, triggering a rise of nearly 3% on July 1.

Erdogan’s optimism is not shared by everyone, however.

Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at Saint Lawrence University in New York and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, said “people have misinterpreted Trump’s public comments.”

“Trump would clearly like a deal but his actual options appear to be quite limited,” Eissenstat said via e-mail. “As I understand it, he can temporarily suspend CAATSA sanctions but he can’t waive them.”

US government officials told Reuters after the Trump-Erdogan meeting that, at least so far, the administration intended to impose sanctions on Turkey and pull it from the F-35 programme if it took delivery of the S-400 batteries. Influential US Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican, also said he expected sanctions against Turkey to go ahead.

“I doubt if that conversation occurred,” Graham told CBS News in reference to the meeting of Trump and Erdogan in Japan. “It’s impossible, under our law, if Turkey buys [and] activates the S-400 missile battery they bought from the Russians, sanctions would be required under law.”

Graham pointed to recently adopted US legislation banning the sale of the F-35 jets to Turkey if Ankara deploys the S-400.

“There’s no way we’re going to transfer to Turkey the F-35 technology and let them buy a Russian missile battery at the same time. It would compromise our platform,” Graham said. The senator and other officials said the S-400 could be used to spy on the F-35, the West’s most advanced fighter jet.

Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, also voiced doubt about Ankara’s expectation that Turkey can buy the S-400 and stay in the F-35 programme despite CAATSA.

Writing on Twitter, Ash said: “Some people totally misread Trump’s ability to deliver on his G20 ‘promises’ to Erdogan — if indeed he promised anything.” If Turkey took delivery of the S-400s, “whatever Trump might say, Congress will

[certainly] sanction Turkey under CAATSA and no F35s.”

Eissenstat said trouble could be ahead for Turkish-US relations.

“My fear is that either Trump said something in private that he won’t commit to publicly or that Erdogan misinterpreted the message,” he wrote.

“If either of those is true, it would be the worst outcome: meaning that Turkey would not only suffer sanctions but that it would not have been fully warned in advance. The sense of grievance and betrayal in those circumstances would be acute, certainly more acute than if US messaging had been clear from the start.”

Erdogan reacted angrily to the idea that the United States could withhold the F-35s despite Turkey’s wish to buy 116 of the jets and despite that fact that Ankara had invested $1.4 billion in the project. “If you seek a customer and a customer comes forward and makes payments like clockwork, how can you not give that customer their goods? This would be robbery,” Erdogan was quoted in Turkish news reports as saying.

Turkey and the United States are also at odds over Syria, where Washington has been supporting a Kurdish militia that Ankara regards as a terrorist group. Since Turkey’s failed coup in 2016, there have also been tensions over the US rejection of a Turkish request to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric whom Erdogan says was the mastermind of the overthrow attempt.

Last year, Trump slapped sanctions on Turkey because of the detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson. The sanctions, which added to a crash of the lira, ended after Brunson’s release and return to the United States.

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