What would President Trump ask from Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan if he were allowed to ask for one thing only? An American official talking to a group of Turks on condition of anonymity recently asked that rhetorical question and continued without waiting for the Turks to answer: it would be to cancel the Russian S-400 air defense missiles.
All other problems on the agenda would be secondary in American eyes today: from the serious discrepancy in Syria to the sanctions on Iran, from the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher accused of masterminding a coup attempt in Turkey to the release of American employees and citizens from Turkish jails.
The U.S. escalates pressure on its NATO ally Turkey to cancel the purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missiles amid diplomatic traffic over the cooperation against terrorism in Syria, which might further delay the American troops’ withdrawal. The Donald Trump administration threatens Tayyip Erdoğan’s government that otherwise, they would not deliver the F-35 fighter jets, which Turkey is among the co-producers of, as the training of Turkish plots in the U.S. continues for the first delivery scheduled for July 2019.
Lately, the Acting U.S. Defense secretary Patrick Shanahan said on February 28, following a telephone conversation with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, that S-400s and F-35s were “incompatible” and that the U.S. wanted “to find a solution that makes the F-35s, for a strategic partner, a critical asset in their military”. Two American diplomatic missions will be in Ankara for intensive talks with their Turkish counterparts: James Jeffrey, the Syria envoy of the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Matthew Palmer, Pompeo’s Deputy Assistant Secretary in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs.
Turkey has been dismissing American warnings so far. When Pompeo had said last November that he hoped Turkey would cancel the Russian deal, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that it was “not possible” and the “deal was closed” with Russians. “Why should we cancel?” Erdoğan asked publicly on February 18; “Why didn’t you say anything to Greeks when they purchased S-300s?” Two days later Vice President Mike Pence called Erdoğan, reportedly forwarding Trump’s greetings, to pursue him for a review of S-400 decision. It has seemingly not impressed Erdoğan.
American military thinks the artificial intelligence capacities of Russian S-400s could “learn” the unique stealth capacities of F-35s since they would become a part of Turkish air defense and thus “open holes” in the American air defense through NATO –where Turks and the U.S. are allies which consider Russia as a major rival. Ankara objects that saying that there were Israeli F-35s flying over Syria protected with Russian air defense; that is denied by Americans since they are not interconnected, but fail to convince Turks. Ankara dismisses the American claims that the purchase of the S-400s would “change the DNA” of Turkey’s, thus NATO’s defense: if Patriots and S-400 could work together with no problem in Saudi Arabia, why couldn’t they in Turkey.
The fact that Americans gave Israel the F-35 that they try to block from co-producer Turkey now, makes Turks more upset. An American source told Yetkin Report on conditions of anonymity that as soon as the Israeli pilots started to fly with F-35s and observed the capabilities, the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu started to object to Turkey owning those jets.
Ignoring the American argument that Congress might block the purchase of F-35s through Countering America’s Adversaries Act (CAATSA), Çavuşoğlu underlines that Turkey has fulfilled all contract requirements for the F-35s, opening the U.S. government’s loyalty to its promises and reliability into debate. Both Turks and Americans accuse each other of not being predictable.
Also, Turks think the American administration’s Patriot defense systems offer on January 3 was too late. After being denied for years, the deal was inked with Russians following two-years-long negotiations. Turkish officials told Russian Sputnik news agency on March 1, after Shanahan’s statement that Ankara has turned down an offer to deliver one Patriot battery –with boosted prices and no technology transfer according to Bloomberg- by the end of 2019. First S-400 delivery has been announced to start by the end of 2019 as well.
Neither Americans nor Turks tend to comment positively on the formula suggested by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. He said Turkey could keep the S-400 but there should be no problem if they do not use it. That is, in fact, the formula found for the Greek S-300s; they are reportedly kept unused in a military warehouse in the island of Crete, so collect no information. During a recent conversation with a group of Turks, an American official speaking on condition of anonymity answered that question with another question: how could the Americans be sure that Turks would not start operating S-400s once the F-35 was delivered to Turkish Air Forces and started flying over the country?
That is actually the keyword: trust. According to İlter Turan a professor in the International Relations Department of Bilgi University in Istanbul, there is a “trust issue” between the two allies stood together against Moscow during the Cold War and now is the “biggest problem in between”. Now the U.S. and Turkey are being separated because of a Russian defense system due to a major trust issue. It is not hard to guess that Russian President Vladimir Putin must be watching the argument between two allies with pleasure.
There are two other major reasons for that mutual mistrust other than s-400s. The first one is the residence in the U.S. of Fethullah Gülen and his network leaders who are accused of masterminding a military coup attempt in 2016. The other one is the American collaboration against ISIS in Syria with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which is the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is designated as terrorist by the U.S. as well as Turkey. It is hard for Turks to forget Trump’s threat of devastating Turkish economy if the Turkish army would attack their Syria partners.
Perhaps it is time to focus on shared interests for Washington and Ankara, rather than trying to focus on problems to put relations back on a positive, reliable and predictable track.