Media outlets which have been prepared for some time for immediate U.S. response by the Donald Trump administration against Turkey by imposing heavy sanctions were surprised with the news of Pentagon cancelling a July 12 press conference. Amid speculations that it was asked by Trump, the cancellation followed a telephone conversation between the acting Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Turkish National Defence Minister Hulusi Akar.
A few hours earlier than the cancellation of the Pentagon briefing, Akar’s office had announced the arrival of the first components of the Russian S-400 surface to air missiles to the Mürted air base near Ankara transported by Russian AN-124 and IL-72 cargo planes. On July 15, the 8th plane landed on the base which was built during the Cold War to counter the threat from Moscow. At one point the one of the bases for US Air force nuclear warheads to be used against the Soviets, the Mürted base was the headquarters of the military coup attempt exactly three years ago on July 15, 2016, which was indicted to be masterminded by the US-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen.The general view in the West was that Turkey would be intimidated by the sanction threats by the U.S., its biggest NATO ally, and would at least delay the delivery; up until the last minute, decision-makers in the West hoped President Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey would cancel or at least freeze the $2.5 billion deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an adversary of the U.S. and NATO. As of July 16, Trump said that talks were going on with Turks but won’t sell F-35s any longer and Esper said the U.S. was “Disappointed”, but there was still no word about CAATSA sanctions. (*)
Many people have been focusing on what kind of sanctions await Turkey: the cancellation of the delivery of the new generation of jet fighters even though Turkey is a co-producer and imposing CAATSA sanctions to punish Turkey by devastating its economy, as Trump stated months ago, to stop Turkish military operations into Syria.
On the flip side there is a rare blow – that is if there has ever been any other of the same scale- to the American reputation since the Second World War: a U.S. ally, in this case, Turkey highlighting its sovereignty, rejects the requests, demands and threats of the superpower on a strategic issue to make its own military choice alongside an American adversary, in this case, Russia.
This is a rare blow not only to the reputation of the U.S. but to its mighty image as well. It sets an example of what is possible to other allies of the U.S. Washington DC noted months ago that America’s Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and one of its Asian allies, India, have speeded up their negotiations with Russia to buy S-400s following Turkey’s announcement of the deal with Russians. Saudis have already got the American Patriot batteries but also know that Patriots are less capable than S-400s. Though they currently depend on an American (thus indirectly Israeli) air defence network today (since being anti-Iran connects Saudis and Israelis). However, if things take a turn in the future, Riyadh might need an autonomous system like S-400s. A Russian lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky said on July 14 that exports to Turkey were a start and more S-400 systems would be seen in the Middle East soon. Despite being under CAATSA sanctions threat by the U.S. Congress, Indian authorities also openly say that they would carry on with the project to strengthen their air defence.
A ranking American source told YetkinReport on conditions of anonymity that “they had intelligence” that even some NATO members might be interested in S-400s and waiting to see where and how the U.S.-Turkey rift would end. That is why the U.S. Administration is not happy with the dose of criticism and warning by the NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. On the contrary, Stoltenberg said that stopping the delivery of F-35s to Turkey would not only harm Turkey’s air defence but also the entire NATO defence. And speaking of kicking Turkey out of the F-35 program into which it has invested $1.25 billion so far, contributing to the production alongside ten companies, ready to buy 100 planes for the start, one should keep in mind the July 2018 letter of the former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis to Senate Armed Services panel. There he said that apart from compensations to be paid to Turkey and loss of credibility, the disruption of the supply chain could delay the delivery of 50-75 jets, most of them to U.S. Air Force, for another 18-24 months.
Also, it is not in vain that Turkish opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who opposes almost everything that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) does, called on the U.S. Congress to have a look at the map before sanctioning Turkey. This is a country bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria, having the longest Black Sea coast neighbouring Russia and Ukraine, bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia, having access to Central Asia, in addition to holding a strategic position in the East Mediterranean in the neighbourhood of Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Cyprus. The strongest warning to Turkey from NATO came from Supreme Allied Commander, General Curtis Scaparotti, and the fact that there were no non-American NATO officials saying that so far was underlined by American opinion-holders. No European country or politician has taken the same strong stance with Americans on the S-400 rift with Turkey. The Europeans may well be waiting to see the limits of the reaction of the Americans to Turkey. In March 2019, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said during an address to the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, after giving disturbing figures of U.S. dependency of NATO countries in military systems, the European countries should be able to look after themselves. (*)
Can it be because not only Turks but many other nations may have been fed up with being pushed around by Americans, especially under the Trump Administration? It’s possible. As times change, so does the balance of power.
That is why there are capitals that are eagerly waiting for an American reaction to the Turkish decision to buy S-400s which prompted those defying American threats.
The American silence might be dangerous, too. The cancellation of the Pentagon briefing might well be the calm before the storm or it could be that Americans are taking a deep breath before a review of the situation.
The Congress, State and Pentagon might ask the President not to let Turkey get away with this blow, also in order to set an example for other allies to show that they might face the same consequences. The question is that will the sanctions force Turkey to change its strategic choices or do any good for America interests other than serving revenge.
Another question is whether the U.S. really wants to cut or downgrade its links with Turkey because of this, which could also mean accepting the defeat and leaving the ground to Russia. And what the European members of NATO would say to that?
On the other hand, going too far with the sanctions on the military side could further alienate Turkey and push the country to cooperate more with Russia. Similarly, going too far with the economic sanctions could put more burden on the Turkish citizens, not the government, causing the government to explain the failure of the economy with the American intervention, which would serve nothing but a further rise in existing anti-Americanism.
It should also be noted that S-400 is not the only area of discrepancy between the two NATO allies, at least on paper. Turkey has been objecting the American collaboration with the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria in the struggle to ISIS. That is the main reason for Turkey’s cooperation with Russia in Syria, despite being against the Bashar al-Assad regime there. Another major rift is the residence in Pennsylvania of the Islamist preacher Gülen who has been indicted to mastermind the 2016 coup attempt to overthrow the Erdoğan government; Turkey wants Gülen to be extradited.
American media say that a decision of Trump Administration and the Congress is likely I the week of July 15. It is something more than a coincidence that the delivery of S-400s has started on the eve of the July 15 commemorations to be led by Erdoğan by a massive rally in Istanbul.
It has to be Putin who enjoys the scene most.
(*) Updated as of 21.10 on July 16, 2019.