With the arrival at the Murted Airbase outside Ankara of Russian planes, over the past six days, carrying the S-400 missile defence system, the expected fall out between the United States and Turkey still threatens to bring relations between the two countries to an all-time diplomatic low. Turkey must wait and see whether punitive sanctions will be imposed for ignoring Washington's demand not to deploy the Russian defence system.
Turkey's relationship with the US took a turn for the worse in President Barak Obama's second term in the White House. In 2013, the Erdogan and Obama administrations differed sharply over the removal of Egypt's first elected President Mohammad Morsi in a coup d'état. Worse still, Obama's administration support of Syria's YPG, viewed by Turkey as an offshoot of the PKK terrorist organisation, posed in Turkey's view a direct threat to its territorial integrity. For its part, the Trump administration continued to arm the YPG in Syria in its war against the Islamic State group.
Ankara's S-400 air and missile defence system's purchase from Russia has been of grave concern to the US Congress who have already warned Ankara of punitive sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, CAATSA. Ankara describes defending its country as a "sovereign right" and refers to the purchase of the S-400 as a "matter of necessity." It follows the decision by the Obama administration to reject Ankara's request in 2007 to purchase the US Patriot Missile Air defence missile system. Last month at the G20 summit, President Trump struck a conciliatory tone, blaming the Obama administration for Turkey's "inescapable" decision. "Obama's administration said no, no, no to Turkey when they wanted to purchase Patriots and they [Turkey] bought S400," Trump said and called Obama administration's reluctance and failure to sell Patriots to Turkey a 'mess'.
Trump words prompted Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham to offer a solution to the dispute, "They've [Turkey] helped us in Syria. They are a NATO ally, President Trump's right that the last administration probably was too hard. They should have sold them the Patriot U.S. missile battery to protect Turkish airspace," Graham said. "The way around this is to get Turkey to back off activating the S-400, replace it with a Patriot missile battery that is NATO compliant. I do not want a conflict with Turkey. They're a very important ally, particularly when it comes to Syria and the region," he added.
Assuming that the US does impose sanctions on Turkey aimed at strangling the Turkish economy, it seems inevitable that Turkey would indeed retaliate. Although Trump said, Thursday, that he was not looking to impose sanctions following the delivery of S400 components, Ankara is sitting on some strategic playing cards that could effectively cripple American presence in the Middle East.
The US base at Incirlik and the radar position at Kurecik are vital for the US to conduct military operations and surveillance in the eastern Mediterranean region. These bases, if closed, could be problematic for the US and could jeopardise the security of American interests in the area, including its key ally Israel. The radars deployed in Kurecik plays a significant role in ensuring the security of its most erstwhile middle-eastern ally.
A breakdown in the relationship could also see Turkey start a military operation in Northern Syria at the East of Euphrates River against the YPG. Such a move would also put Ankara in confrontation with US troops but would create a 30-kilometre deep YPG-free zone, similar to that which was previously agreed with the US.
Also, Turkey may use leverage to disrupt the US logistics arms supply chain and even restrict American access to NATO installations. The US receives significant logistic support from Turkey in the Middle East, and if Turkey withdraws co-operation, it could result in the US incurring a substantial additional cost. The disruption may force the US to find alternate sources but may end the US's hegemony almost permanently in the region.
Some believe the US administration will have to remain pragmatic to ensure the survival of the US-Turkey alliance. "What has happened with the S400 cannot be reversed," says Turkey analyst Yusuf Erim. "Trump appears to be saying the right things as far as Turkey is concerned. But CAATSA is a federal law and just how long Trump can hold off Congress remains to be seen", Erim went on.
President Erdogan has also said that Turkey is in the process of developing its air defence systems that might be fully operational by 2024. Thus for now the US may be forced to allow Turkey to use the Russian system until – as suggested by Turkey's Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar – Ankara buys the US-made Patriot air defence systems.
On Thursday the US announced that it would suspend Turkey's delivery of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter jet. The decision has been condemned by Ankara and could also prove counter-productive for the US in the long run. The US would undoubtedly lose time and money if the Turkish logistic maintenance hub for the aircraft had to be relocated. For now, Turkey seems less perturbed about the diplomatic fallout and appears more concerned with the task of taking delivery, assembly and putting into operation its new Russian built air defence system.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.