US asks Turkey to ‘choose’ between NATO and Russia

Erdogan was to travel to Russia for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the third meeting of the two leaders this year.
Sunday 07/04/2019
Untrusted ally. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the US Department of State in Washington, April 3.     (AFP)
Untrusted ally. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the US Department of State in Washington, April 3. (AFP)

BERLIN - Turkey’s troubled relations with the United States were thrown into a new crisis days before a Turkish-Russian meeting designed to deepen ties between those two countries.

US officials used unusually blunt language to warn NATO partner Turkey against buying the Russian S-400 missile defence system and against launching a raid into Syria, drawing a sharp rebuke from Ankara. The United States also stopped the process to deliver F-35 fighter jets to Turkey.

“I think the die is cast,” W. Robert Pearson, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former US ambassador to Turkey, said by telephone. “We are seeing a hardening of the US position. The US has concluded that Turkey has no intention of moving away from the S-400 decision and the US has no intention of providing Turkey with the F-35.”

The rift demonstrates the gulf between the two sides that has opened in crucial security issues as Ankara defines its national interests in a way that US officials see as incompatible with the West’s stance. However, while US officials express concern about Turkey turning its back on the West, Ankara complains of Western double standards and perceived efforts to enforce its will on the country.

Relations between Ankara and Washington have been strained for years over US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria and descended into a full-blown confrontation last year when America imposed economic sanctions against Turkey to win the release of a US clergyman from a Turkish jail.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was to travel April 8 to Moscow for a meeting with Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin, the third meeting of the two leaders this year. The pair met eight times face to face last year and had at least 16 telephone conversations, a sign of their close cooperation in the Syrian conflict and other matters. This time, the agenda of Erdogan and Putin includes the visit to an opera gala at the Bolshoi Theatre, Turkish news reports said.

Pearson said the relationship was entirely to Russia’s benefit. Erdogan’s frequent meetings with Putin “haven’t gained Turkey anything,” he said. In Syria, Moscow was pursuing its goal to extend the Damascus government’s control over the entire country, regardless of Turkey’s ideas for Syria. Russian officials only pretended that Turkey was an equal partner, he said, adding that “there is nothing the Turks have over them.”

Erdogan prepared for his trip as the United States used strong language to warn Turkey against buying the S-400 because of concerns Moscow might use the system to spy on NATO military assets, such as the F-35.

Ankara says the S-400 deal with Moscow is done, with the first parts of the Russian system to arrive in July in Turkey.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu proposed the creation of a Turkish-American commission to make sure that the S-400 could not harm NATO equipment. Turkey argues it had to turn to Russia to provide a much-needed missile defence because the US Patriot system was too expensive and because Washington would not allow a transfer of technology, as requested by Ankara.

Those arguments failed to convince the US administration.

In a week that saw celebrations and speeches praising the unity of NATO at the 70th anniversary of the alliance, US Vice-President Mike Pence posted on Twitter that “Turkey must choose. Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our @NATO alliance?”

Pence added that US President Donald Trump had “made it clear that we will not stand idly by while @NATO allies purchase weapons from our adversaries that threaten the cohesion of our alliance.”

Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay shot back, also via Twitter in English, echoing the US vice-president’s choice of words.

“The United States must choose,” Oktay wrote. “Does it want to remain Turkey’s ally or risk our friendship by joining forces with terrorists to undermine its NATO ally’s defence against its enemies?” He was referring to US support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria, which is regarded as a terrorist organisation by Turkey.

Pearson said the Turkish argument that the question of whether the S-400 could be used for spying was a purely technical issue would not change anybody’s mind in Washington. “It is a political decision,” he said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a meeting with Cavusoglu April 3 in Washington to warn Ankara against military intervention against the YPG in north-eastern Syria. Pompeo spoke of “the potentially devastating consequences of unilateral Turkish military action in the region,” the US State Department said.

Commentators in Turkey said the harsh tone adopted by Washington suggested that the United States wanted to impose its will on allies.

Celalettin Yavuz, a former Turkish military officer and a professor at Istanbul’s Ayvansaray University, said Pence’s statement was unacceptable.

“The US administration wants to give orders” to other NATO members, Yavuz said by telephone. That was not only a problem for Turkey but also for countries like France and Germany. “America is saying: ‘You’re not going to buy that, you’re going to buy this.’”

He said Washington was hurting itself in the long term. “If this goes on, Turkey will not buy another piece of military equipment from the US,” Yavuz said.