Erdogan Unlikely to Concede on S-400 Unless Trump Commits to Crippling Sanctions Against Turkey

Ankara enjoys strong partnership with both Washington and Moscow and uses each of these relations as leverage against the other. The US, however, has a strong arsenal of potential punishment against Turkey, writes Valdai Club expert Güney Yıldız. At the top of the list of penalties come possible economic sanctions against Turkey as well as a potential fine against the state-owned Halkbank for allegedly violating US sanctions against Iran.

The recent meeting between President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will not be a make or break moment for the US-Turkish relations. It could, however, mark the beginning of a shift in the US policy towards Turkey in favour of a more adversarial approach to keep Turkey away from activities deemed to be against US interests.

So far, the US approach was offering “carrots” to keep Ankara on board. That didn’t work. It is unlikely that the “stick” approach will work either. It will, though, hurt Turkey significantly.

Since the invasion of Iraq, successive US administrations tried to keep Turkey committed to the alliance with Washington as much as Ankara did during the Cold War. The attempts so far failed to prevent Turkey from following what the Turkish government sees as an independent foreign policy. Ankara’s formula for a more independent foreign policy orientation is based on balancing its US dependency with links with other power centres, especially with Moscow and if possible with Beijing.

The US strategy involved turning a blind eye on Turkish moves, such as refusal to let the American soldiers use Turkish soil to carry out operations in Iraq. That policy was pushed, in 2003, by the then leadership of the Turkish military, who grew suspicious of the US policy in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War. At that time, then Prime Minister Erdogan, who received strong political support from the US since before he took the office of Prime Ministry, was firmly pro-US. Other Turkish moves that irritated Washington involved Turkey’s refusal to pursue an anti-Iran policy during the sanctions; Ankara’s Islamist turn in foreign policy and alienation of Israel. Starting from 2015, President Erdogan has completed his shift away from the US as well and joined forces with other anti-American factions of the Turkish establishment.

The latest big US reward for Turkey came in the form of withdrawal of American troops from most of Northern Syria, which paved the way for Turkish offensive against the formerly US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Some pro-Turkish officials at the US State Department such as Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey and some anti-Iran hawks might have imagined that such a big “carrot” would soothe tensions between Ankara and Washington. There is no indication from Ankara that the US withdrawal achieved any of those aims.

Throughout the last decades, Washington hardly ever resorted to using punishment to deter Turkish actions. One of the few examples includes the limited US sanctions by President Trump during the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor in Western Turkey. The sanctions, along with a myriad of other factors, yielded results and Pastor Brunson was released from Turkish jail.

S-400 in Turkey: An Umbrella in Rainy Weather
Andrey Sushentsov
The Russian-Turkish deal is also important as a precedent for Russia’s military technical cooperation with a leading NATO country. Turkey has the second largest army of the alliance and is strategically autonomous from the United States. Strengthening its independence plays against the unity within NATO and bolsters up the polycentric trend in the world.
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Today, what tops the agenda is Turkey’s purchasing Russian S-400 air defence system which Washington says cannot coexist with the most advanced strike fighter jet, to which Turkey is a production partner. The US demands that either Turkey reverses its decision on S-400 purchase or deactivates the system. Speaking to US media before President Erdogan’s visit, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien threatened sanctions if Turkey does not remove the S-400. “There’s no place in NATO for significant Russian military purchases. That’s a message that the President will deliver to him (Erdogan) very clearly when he’s here,” O'Brien said.

Turkey’s purchase of S-400 is a more significant issue than what Turkey does against the Kurdish-led administrations in Syria. What is more important is for Turkey to become a regular buyer of Russian weapons and extended links between the Turkish and Russian militaries.

Currently, Ankara enjoys strong partnership both with Washington and Moscow and uses each of these relations as leverage against the other. The US, however, has a strong arsenal of potential punishment against Turkey. At the top of the list of penalties come possible economic sanctions against Turkey as well as a potential fine against the state-owned Halkbank for allegedly violating US sanctions against Iran.

A clear indication of Washington’s plan to instrumentalise rewards and punishment came when an undated indictment against Halkbank was unveiled on the 15th of October just two days before US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had talks with Erdogan in Turkey regarding the Turkish offensive in Syria.

Halkbank, one of Turkey’s largest banks, was indicted on the charges as prosecutors accused it of operating a multibillion-dollar scheme to undermine US sanctions on Iran. Halkbank has in the past denied violating US sanctions. The case is also a potential direct threat against Erdogan since the court case involves senior government figures close to the President.

Before his visit to Washington, the Turkish leader suggested that, if offered, Turkey may buy US Patriot air defence system. It is unlikely that such a deal will derail increased inclination in the US to favour a more aggressive approach towards Turkey. What may push Turkey to agree to more concessions will depend on whether or not the US will really commit to further sanctions.

Erdogan’s New Term: More Power Plays and Exploiting Geopolitical Rivalries
Guney Yildiz
Last Sunday, Turkey held presidential and parliamentary elections, which ended in a new victory for the incumbent leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In an interview with valdaiclub.com, Guney Yildiz, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, shared his view on the domestic and international ramifications of the elections’ results.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.