Turkey is engaged in the one its most high stakes diplomatic standoffs in recent memory, as it risks its part in the F-35 program amid an emerging alliance with Russia. Turkey's Foreign Ministry criticized a US House of Representatives resolution on Tuesday, angered that Congress is concerned about the US-Turkey alliance.
But it is Turkey that decided in 2017 to purchase Russia's S-400 air defense system. Today Turkish media portrays that decision as Ankara's desire to get a state-of-the-art system when the US wouldn't sell it the Patriot missile system. In December 2018, the US approved the Patriot sale.
But the real story of Turkey's brinkmanship is more complex. Turkey and the US have been close allies since the late 1940s. In 1952, Turkey joined NATO, and became part of the Baghdad Pact in 1955 in the context of the Cold War. A US Air Base at Incirlik in south central Anatolia was built in the 1950s, and US Jupiter missiles were stationed in Turkey in 1961.
From Ankara's point of view, Washington put much of this at risk through increasingly hostile acts in both Iraq in the 1990s and 2000s, and in Syria after 2011. Turkey was particularly angered by the US support for the People's Protection Units (YPG), later the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main US partner in eastern Syria that has been fighting ISIS. Turkey sees the YPG as part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and as a terrorist group.
Tensions grew worse after 2015 when the Turkey-PKK ceasefire broke down and Turkey launched increasingly larger operations against the PKK, first inside Turkey, then increasingly in northern Iraq, and then operating in Afrin in northwestern Syria where hundreds of thousands of mostly-Kurdish civilians fled a Turkish offensive in January 2018.
The whole Turkish experiment in moving its forces into northern Syria has been partly to support Syrian rebels, but largely to check the power of the SDF and YPG. Operation Euphrates Shield near Jarabulus and Manbij was designed to stop the SDF moving further west of the Euphrates in the fall of 2016.
In May 2017, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the US that arming the YPG was a "mistake." Ankara was particularly nonplussed with Brett McGurk, the US anti-ISIS envoy appointed by the Obama administration, who stayed on under Trump until December. In January, when McGurk wrote publicly about his criticism of Turkey, the presidential adviser of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused him of spreading PKK propaganda, according to the Ankara-based Anadolu news agency.
It is in this context that Turkey believes its supporters should see its decision to become closer with Russia. In fact, Ankara's Russian policy is more complex.
Turkey, Iran and Russia began to discuss Syrian ceasefires at Astana, Kazakhstan, in January 2017, and these talks were fruitful, showing Turkey that it could rely on Russia and Iran. Turkey had every reason to be opposed to Russia, since Russia was backing the Syrian regime that Ankara had called a terrorist regime in December 2017.
In 2015, Turkey downed a Russian plane and a Turkish off-duty police officer assassinated the Russian ambassador in December 2016. It is testament to how much Turkey and Russia wanted to work together that they moved beyond this. They signed a gas pipeline deal in the fall of 2016, and Erdogan and Putin began discussing policy more frequently. That is why Turkey agreed to acquire the S-400 in 2017. Russia acquiesced to Turkey's increasing operations in Turkey, keeping the Syrian regime from opposing them in the air.
The US tapped former ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey to be Special Representative for Syria Engagement in the fall of 2018, and to replace McGurk as anti-ISIS envoy in January. Jeffrey was supposed to smooth relations with Ankara and find a way to forge a safe zone on the Syria-Turkey border. Turkey believed its high stakes negotiation strategy would work. It had previously made a deal with the Trump administration over a detained US pastor, and the US had reportedly pressured Israel in July to release a Turkish activist. The US slapped huge bounties on the heads of the PKK to make Ankara happy.
Turkey believed if it pushed the US a bit more, Washington would leave Syria and then maybe Turkey could even get its Patriots and the S-400, and keep the F-35 program.
Turkey was a partner in the F-35 warplane program since 1999 with eight Turkish companies supporting the program, many of them since 2005. Ankara doesn't think the US threats to end this program are realistic. How can a 20-year program end so quickly? Trump will leave office eventually, and Turkey knows the next US administration will likely do a "reset" the way the Obama administration did with Russia.
But the Pentagon has tried to make it clear that as the deadline draws close for Turkey to finally receive the S-400, the F-35 program is in jeopardy. The US suspended Turkish air force pilot training earlier this month and then suspended the pilots from flying, according to Foreign Policy. The US is also trying to figure out how to "unwind" Turkey from the overall economic program.
US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan says that Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400. But it will take until 2020 to get Turkey out of the program because more than 937 parts are made in Turkey, 400 of them solely in Turkey. Ankara read the contract on this and thinks it has considerable leverage.
Turkey appears to have accepted this fate, with stories circulating it is approaching Russia to buy warplanes, or even China, and looking to take part in more Russian defense programs. But this is Ankara putting on a brave face. In The Wall Street Journal, former US ambassador Eric Edelman and Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior vice-president for research Jonathan Schanzer argued in May that the US can't afford to go soft on Turkey. Ankara understands that views on its intransigence are hardening in Washington.
So why does Turkey go ahead with the S-400? First of all, Ankara has said that it will take delivery numerous times. To bend now would make it seem less serious. Also, Turkey wants more from the US. It wants a safe-zone in eastern Syria, and it wants the SDF out of Manbij. It likely wants to launch a major operation in eastern Syria as it did in Afrin. It also wants less pushback for its energy plans in the eastern Mediterranean. And it wants Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen whom Ankara blames for a 2016 attempted coup to be extradited. Turkey's justice minister went to Washington this week, allegedly to discuss the case of the cleric Ankara wants extradited.
Ankara initially had high hopes for working closely with the Trump administration. But it lost some key allies early on when National Security Adviser Michael Flynn departed. Erdogan's May 2017 visit didn't result in deepening relations. Instead, the US under Trump grew closer to Saudi Arabia, which has a difficult relationship with Ankara.
Turkey's final calculations are that Trump is a deal maker. If the price is right, maybe there is still a deal. Trump has reversed policy before. Turkey has also watched how Iran outplayed the US in the Iran deal. It thinks that at the end of the day US policy makers will want a close alliance with Turkey that it will get the S-400, and that the latest US deadline, set for July 31, will come and go.
Regardless, Turkey can always threaten to evade US sanctions on Iran, or stir up trouble in eastern Syria. And the US can't unwind the F-35 program until 2020, by which time Trump will be in a difficult election campaign and may forget about the F-35s.
The question is if the Pentagon will forget. The rank and file may prefer to stick with Turkey, a historic ally, even if some US commanders have served alongside the SDF and feel that Turkey is a problematic ally, as McGurk concluded.
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.