Trump’s S-400 call: saving Turkey from sanctions or a new credit to Erdoğan before a crucial election?
U.S. President Donald Trump has reportedly agreed with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan over setting up a study group to examine Russian S-400 missiles’ interferences with the F-35 jets. This news has sparked a certain optimism in Ankara among government circles about a possible call by Trump to save Turkey from possible sanctions. Yet, a June 4 statement by Erdoğan saying that there would be no turning back from the deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin indicates that there isn’t much advance on the ground.
The Bloomberg news after the two leader’s’ telephone conversation on May 29 was seen as an indicator of the strong bond between Trump and Erdoğan which could circumvent a bi-partisan Congress call to stop the delivery of F-35s, which Turkey is a co-producer of, should Turkey not cancel the S-400 deal with Russia. U.S. officials claim the Russian system with its artificial intelligence capacity could “learn” the stealth secrets of the F-35s, and in this way, put the U.S. and NATO defenses in jeopardy. Turkish officials on the other hand claim that the two systems are already in use through Norwegian F-35s in the Baltic and the Israeli ones in Syria, therefore, a joint study group could decide on the risks to be avoided in order not to harm the NATO defense.
That was the logic behind Turkey’s proposal to set up a study group in order to find out the details about using these two superior weapon systems together. It was first suggested by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo two months ago and then repeated by Erdoğan to Trump as well as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Turkish national NASA employee Serkan Gölge’s release from jail, where he was kept for nearly three years because of alleged links with the Pennsylvania resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey was one of the issues leading up to the May 29 telephone conversation between Trump and Erdoğan. During this call, the S-400 study group was also discussed. Another factor was a May 27 TV interview with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who said that the delivery of the S-400s could be “delayed” but that a U.S. decision to stop the delivery of the F-35s might cause Turkey to “set up its own world”. The latter, of course, was an implication concerning its alliance with NATO and the U.S. Earlier, Akar had said that Turkey was taking precautions against the possibility of CAATSA sanctions.
Trump has recently approved arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) despite Congress objection based on the violation of human rights. He did this due to his good relations between the two leaderships, and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government circles saw that as a possibility for Turkey to avoid Trump’s F-35 sanctions, depending on the study group outcome, even in the event that Turkey proceeds with Moscow on the S-400 deal. However, Trump’s waiver to exempt Saudis and UAE from arms sales is based on a possible “emergency” threat from Iran, since the two, together with Israel, are archenemies of Iran. The CAATSA sanctions involving F-35s have nothing to do with Iran, and according to experts in Washington DC, the two issues involve “entirely different pieces of legislation”.
Yet again the AKP circles hope that the establishment of such a working group and Trump’s firm stance against Congress sanctions could save the Turkish economy from its downward trajectory. On the day the Bloomberg’s news story came out about the study group, a slight drop in the value occurred in the value of the U.S dollar against Turkish lira from 6.10 to 5.88. But this rate was 4.45 a year ago right before a tweet by Trump about the release of the arrested American pastor Andrew Brunson; the lira has depreciated almost by a third in a year. On the same day, the Turkish Statistical Institution (TUIK) has revealed a shrink of 2.6 in the Turkish economy during the first quarter of 2019 after a 3.0 shrink in the last quarter of 2018. The rises in inflation (near 20 per cent), interest rates (more than 20 per cent), and unemployment (near 15 per cent) in turn, had an impact in Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) losing the municipalities of all big cities in the March 31st local elections, and is also likely to have an impact on the re-run of the Istanbul elections on June 23.
In his recent commentary on the Washington Post on June 4, Ekrem İmamoğlu of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) stated that his campaign’s victory on March 31 against the AKP’s Binali Yıldırım was seized from him by the Supreme Election Board (YSK). He claimed that this happened as a result of President Erdoğan’s manipulation, but said he believed he would win with an even greater margin on June 23. Possible U.S. sanctions imposed before the elections with their impact on the economy could put the AKP win in Istanbul election in greater jeopardy. The expectations about a Trump-Erdogan meeting in Tokyo in the premises of the G20 Summit on June 28-29 shows that Trump has saved Erdogan from the risk of sanctions before the Istanbul re-run; also avoiding a possible rhetorical twist by Erdogan who could resort to claiming that it was the Americans who caused him to lose the elections in case İmamoğlu wins again.
If established, such a study group might save time for Erdoğan not only for the elections, but for the delivery of both S-400s (first batch scheduled for July) and delivery of F-35s (first two scheduled to arrive in Turkey in November). Erdoğan could use the study of the group as a justification for not making the S-400s operable, or not “opening the boxes” even when after being delivered to Turkey. He could use this to review his decision in accordance with the results of the study group as a face- saving move justified by Turkey’s loyalty to the NATO defense. On the other hand, Trump’s green light to a study group could be Erdogan’s last resort in the S-400 purchase deal where he wanted to use Russian leverage to reach a deal with Americans who refused to sell Patriots to Turks for years up until Turks announced the S-400s.
Actually, Trump’s move about the study is serving more to save himself from possible accusations by Erdoğan due to the elections by giving him support in an attempt to postpone the sanctions to the post-election time at least but making the Turkish economy more vulnerable to Trump’s tweets.
And if the study group fails after the election, then Trump may not use his presidential capacities to stop sanctions on Turkey which could put Erdogan in a more difficult situation, as Russia’s Putin closely monitors the developments between the two NATO members, at a time when Turkey and Russia have started to experience strains in Syria over the ceasefire violations in Idlib amid Turkish worries about its military presence in Syria and another wave of migration.