US President Donald J. Trump’s latest comments at the G20 summit in Osaka signal a shift in US sentiment regarding Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defence system. Veteran Republican senator Lindsey Graham has also expressed his willingness to find solutions to avoid sanctions.
Previously, the unanimous attitude in Washington was that Turkey would not only be isolated from the F-35 warplane programme, but would also be subject to sanctions should it install and activate Russia’s S-400s. Recent developments show a realisation on the part of the US regarding Turkey’s strategic importance and the integral part Turkey plays in the credibility of the NATO alliance.
The US’ frustration with Turkey, specifically over the purchase of Russian weaponry, is not hard to understand, and yet the US President himself explained at Osaka that Turkey was left without options. Effective ground-to-air capabilities are absolutely critical for Turkey’s national security. With tensions on our doorsteps on the rise for years, most recently concerning the escalation between Iran and the US, Turkey must have the best possible chance at defending itself from attack. The array of potential adversaries to the south include the YPG, the Syrian extension of the PKK Marxist terror group, the remnants of ISIS and the PKK, itself, the Syrian regime, as well as the latest addition of one of Libya’s militant factions. All have threatened to target Turkish ships and aircraft and pose a similar threat to our national security.
As confirmed by President Trump, Turkey knocked on America’s door first to fulfill this critical strategic need, but unfortunately was treated unfairly under the Obama administration in its request to purchase American Patriot missiles. After Turkey’s request to purchase American technology for our national security was rejected, where else would Turkey go?
The Obama administration was evidently blind to the fact that refusing Turkey Patriot missiles would only leave us with the option of purchasing the Russian equivalent. The Trump administration offered in January of this year to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey, yet the shortsightedness of the Obama administration had already forced us into a position to formally affirm to Russia our interest in the S-400s. Only then would the US offer Turkey Patriot missiles, at which point it was obviously too late for us to renege on our deal with Russia. Did the US really think that President Erdogan wasn’t serious in his desire to purchase S-400s? All records testify to the fact that President Erdogan has never been one to bluff on such issues. As any educated observer of Turkey would tell you, he does not play games or gamble with Turkish national security.
We must understand the magnitude of the issue and the stake that NATO has in a strong Turkish-American alliance. Turkey has the second largest military in the alliance after the United States. Turkey also sits in a strategically critical location, bordering both the Middle East and Europe. Disputes between the US and NATO’s next largest military force set a disgraceful precedent for other NATO members and prospective member states. What value does the Washington Treaty have if its two largest signatories engage in such debacles?
Unfortunately, this recent back-and-forth on the S-400 issue is not the first time that the US has undermined its key strategic alliance with Turkey.
The safe haven provided by the United States to the leaders of the Gulenist Terrorist Organisation FETO, which is responsible for the failed coup attempt and more than 250 innocent lives back in July 2016, is simply unacceptable. Despite numerous extradition requests, the US still has not taken action to satisfy Turkey’s demands.
The cornerstone of NATO is Article V’s promise to retaliate collectively to any attack on a member. This promise cannot be taken seriously by any belligerent if the US is to arm an official offshoot of the PKK in Syria, a terrorist organisation as categorized by the US itself. The PKK has wreaked havoc on Turkish soil for almost four decades. Arming an enemy of a critical NATO ally and harbouring the leaders of another definitely contradicts the principle of Article V.
More importantly, most of the US’ objections to continuing a strong alliance with Turkey in the last few years have been political, centred around issues of human rights and democracy. The alliance between Turkey and the US, under the wider umbrella of NATO, is first and foremost a strategic collective security alliance. As such, the fact that domestic political factors are front and centre in the US’ disapproval of Turkey is a difficult one to comprehend.
Indeed, a cornerstone of NATO’s ethos does centre on democracy, but I would reiterate that the 23 June Istanbul mayoral election is a sign that democracy is alive and well here in Turkey. If the US is to degrade its strategic alliance with Turkey, it should take strategic factors into consideration as opposed to political ones.
Nonetheless, Presidents Trump and Erdogan reaffirmed at Osaka the importance of the Turkish-American strategic alliance. Recent comments again show a change in sentiment towards Turkey, and a much-welcomed understanding that Ankara will do what is necessary to fulfill its national security necessities.
I would speculate that as the prospect of deepening the rift between the US and Turkey becomes increasingly realistic, the US is beginning to realise the wider implications for NATO should it choose to sanction Turkey over its national security interests. The possibility that the US might entangle itself in armed conflict with Iran has also added to the urgency of a credible and strong NATO, leading to the US reconsidering its strategic priorities. We have long been mutually important security partners, with a history dating back to the Korean War. of our soldiers standing, and even fighting, side by side. I am optimistic that American leaders will realize the mistakes of the past and opt for the path of a strong Turkish-American alliance.
Our friends in Brussels, and especially the newly designated EU leaders, should also prioritise finding a common ground with Turkey to reenergise yet another very strategic relationship. As the most eastern part of the West and the most western part of the East, Turkey’s unique capabilities should not be underestimated.