Turkey signed a deal to buy the S-400 air defense system from Russia in 2017. According to reports, Ankara is still poised to acquire the weapons system, despite seeking a $3.5 billion deal to get the US Patriot missile defense as well. Turkey will become the only country to have both advanced systems, costing it billions for missile defense as it juggles its relations with the US, NATO and Moscow.
Symbolically, the decision by Turkey to buy weapons systems from Russia and the US is part of the delicate balancing act that Ankara has sought to be friends of both Washington and Moscow, both a NATO ally and working with Russia to deal with the Syrian conflict. However, US Vice President Mike Pence condemned NATO allies for flirting with "the East," an apparent reference to Turkey, and US officials have indicated that Turkey should not acquire both systems.
The 2017 deal for the S-400 came as Turkey was increasingly involved in operations in northern Syria and planning its offensive into Afrin that would begin in January 2018. Turkey was seeking out Russian approval for the offensive and needed Russia to pressure the Syrian regime, a key Russian ally, to allow Turkey to use Syrian airspace for the operation. Turkey wanted to clear the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from the Afrin border area. The deal also came as Turkey was widening economic relations with Russia over the TurkStream pipeline in the Black Sea, which was completed in November 2018. The S-400 deal was estimated at $2.5 billion in 2017 and was supposed to be delivered by 2020. Reports at the time indicated it caused concern among Turkey's NATO allies and that the "antiaircraft weapon systems cannot be integrated into the alliance's defenses."
No matter, Ankara went ahead anyway, judging that it needed relations with Moscow due to its goals in northern Syria and also because Turkey was increasing its work with Iran and Russia through meetings at Astana and Sochi designed to wind down the Syrian conflict. The US, Turkey's older ally, was seen as increasingly problematic by Ankara, which accused Washington of training "terrorists" in Syria. Ankara asserted that Washington was supporting the YPG, which Ankara claims is part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Trump administration excoriated Turkey over detaining a US pastor throughout the summer of 2018. However, things began to change in the fall when the US sent its new Syria envoy James Jeffrey to Turkey and put a bounty on the head of three PKK leaders in November.
Shortly after the announcement of the PKK bounty, Turkey pressured the US in Syria, threatening a military operation in northern Syria where the US has forces, and claiming that ISIS no longer posed a threat. In a phone call, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to US President Donald Trump on December 14. Trump decided to withdraw from Syria after the call, announcing his decision on December 19. A day before the Syria withdrawal announcement, the US State Department cleared Turkey's purchase of $3.5 billion worth of Patriot air defense systems. This would include 80 Patriot MIM-104E Guidance Enhanced and 60 PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement missiles, Defense News reported.
The US noted that Turkey had previously looked at a Chinese-made defense system before inking the S-400 deal. According to reports in December, the Pentagon and NATO were concerned about the S-400 and didn't want it integrated into Western advanced systems that Turkey might use, such as the F-35.
Turkey has plowed ahead anyway with its decision to acquire all the best air defense systems in the world from the leading rivals that make these systems. When it gets the Patriots and S-400s, it will have two systems it cannot integrate easily. Yet Turkey sees the purchase with Russia as a point of honor and pride. It made the deal it can't renege, according to statements from Ankara last week. Turkish President Erdogan hammered that home in comments printed in Hurriyet from the Sochi summit with Iran and Russia last week.
"We have entered into an agreement with Russia on S-400," Erdogan said. "We have no intention to abandon it." The S-400s may come as early as July.
Pence has now appeared to warn Turkey at the Munich Security Conference against buying "weapons from our adversaries." He didn't mention Ankara by name, but said, "We cannot ensure defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East."
US officials indicate Turkey should make a decision by February 15, a deadline that has now passed. But Turkey appears to want to move forward, and neither the US nor NATO is willing to break with Ankara. The real question may be whether Turkey wants to pay the hefty price tag for all this air defense, making it one of the most secure countries in the world from aerial threats, at least on paper, if it acquires all this technology.
Turkey may judge that Russia and the US need Ankara at this key time to ensure stability amid the winding down of the Syrian civil war and defeat of ISIS. Missile defense diplomacy is part of the relationship that now anchors Turkey's relations with Washington and Moscow. But it is a balancing act that Ankara must carefully watch.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.