Despite mounting political and diplomatic pressure by the US and its NATO allies, Turkey has again balked at US attempts of intimidation and dug into its refusal to abandon a new Russian missile defense, saying it won’t bow to the threat of crippling US sanctions or trade the S-400s for an American system.
"They said they would not sell Patriots unless we get rid of the S-400s. It is out of question for us to accept such a precondition," said Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, late on Tuesday after a cabinet meeting, quoted by Bloomberg.
"An irrational anti-Turkish sentiment has prevailed in the Congress and it is not good for Turkish-American relations," Kalin added, noting that Congress "should know that such language of threat would push Turkey exactly toward places that they don’t want it turn to." Namely, right into the hands of Vladimir Putin, who is on even better terms with Erdogan than Trump, despite Turkey taking down a Russian fighter jet over its territory several years back.
Separately, as the WSJ reported this morning, Erdogan once again warned that he would evict U.S. forces from two military bases in his country if Washington imposes new sanctions on his government, creating a bitter quandary for NATO as it seeks to cope with Ankara’s deepening ties to Russia.
In a television interview this month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said if the U.S. punishes Turkey for its purchase of a Russian air-defense system, then, "if necessary, we may close Incirlik and Kureci," installations where the U.S. keeps approximately 50 B61 nuclear weapons, and operates critical radar.
Erdogan's declaration elicited an anxious reaction from U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who said it raised questions about Turkey’s dedication to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: "They have that inherent right to house or to not house NATO bases or foreign troops,” Esper said. "But again, I think this becomes an alliance matter, your commitment to the alliance, if indeed they are serious about what they are saying."
"It feels like watching a car crash in slow motion," a Western diplomat in Turkey told the WSJ.
The main bone of contention is Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system, which the Pentagon views as a security threat to NATO. The U.S. has suspended deliveries of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Turkey and excluded Turkish aerospace companies from a contract to supply fuselage and other parts, saying Russia could use the system’s radar to spy on and assess the stealthy aircraft’s capabilities.
As has been duly covered here for the past two years, US Congress has been pushing for sanctions against Turkey, which has NATO’s second biggest standing army after the US, over the country's purchase of the Russian S-400 despite the objection of President Donald Trump, who has developed a particularly close relationship with Turkey's Erdogan in the past year, and who says such a move could drive Turkey closer to Moscow.
And just to make sure Congress is really furious, Turkey intends to purchase a second Russian S-400 battery and pursue a joint-development agreement with Moscow in order to be able to produce its own sophisticated ballistic missiles, a move that will spark chaos among NATO member nations; as a reminder, NATO only exists to feed the US military-industrial complex with organic customers for advanced weapon systems. By using Russia for its most advanced military needs, Turkey has taken that old maxim and flipped it on its head.
The Trump administration has sought to cajole Erdogan in a bid to prevent Ankara from knitting closer ties with Moscow amid concerns that treating him like a pariah would push Turkey further into Russia’s orbit, U.S. officials said. But Trump has had to contend with angry U.S. lawmakers, who have voted through a string of bills aimed at punishing Turkey.
The US president has so far refrained from using a piece of legislation that allows the U.S. president to slap sanctions on any country that makes a sizable arms purchase from Russia. But a Senate committee recently approved a bill that would enforce the legislation, which could freeze Turkish assets in the U.S., restrict visas and limit access to credit.
In response to growing Western anger, Turkish officials proposed setting up an expert committee with the U.S., or under NATO supervision, to look into the S-400 issue and propose remedies. But US officials told the WSJ, Washington would rather pay substantial compensation than deliver a single F-35 to Turkey and jeopardize the integrity of the multibillion-dollar program.
Highlighting the impasse, Turkey carried out a test of the S-400 system, deployed at an airbase near Ankara, against U.S.-made F-16 jets in late November, and it said it might order Russian combat aircraft if the F-35 delivery ban wasn’t lifted.
“Turkish national-security interests must be regarded as one of the primary issues for the U.S. and NATO,” said Ahmet Berat Conkar, a Turkish lawmaker affiliated with Mr. Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, and the deputy head of Turkey’s delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. "If this cannot be openly guaranteed and maintained by concrete action for Turkey, new cracks may open inside the NATO alliance."
The biggest irony is that in effecting its de facto breach from NATO, Turkey is also exposing the hypocrisy that runs through the heart of the military alliance. As the Journal notes, "some European allies bristle that NATO uses language similar to Turkey’s, which says that its invasion of northern Syria is for national security interests, and voice concerns that the West’s alliance gave Turkey too much leeway to expand its military partnership with Russia."
Turkey, which is already coordinating with Russia in northern Syria, is now also seeking to cooperate with Russia in war-torn Libya.
"Turkey is playing a showdown and it is winning," a senior European diplomat at NATO said.
It is indeed, and the only recourse the West has is to slap crippling sanctions on its economy in hopes of forcing Erdogan to realign his attitude. As Bloomberg reminds us, the last time the U.S. sanctioned Turkey last summery, to pressure it to release a detained U.S. pastor, the lira crashed and sent the Turkish economy into a recession from which it is still recovering.