(In the eye of the storm: US’ F-35 multirole ‘stealth’ jet and Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft defense system)
Even as the countdown has begun before the first batch of Russian-made S-400 missiles will arrive in Turkey — expected in coming ten weeks from now — a crisis situation envelops the Turkish-American relationship. No doubt, this crisis, unless resolved in the coming days or weeks, could have profound consequences for the future of the western alliance system as a whole and the geopolitics of Eurasia and the Middle East.
What distinguishes the crisis from the run-of-the-mill spats that keep frequenting the Turkey-US relationship every now and then is that at issue here is Turkey’s vulnerability, if it proceeds with the S-400 deal, to US retribution under the 2017 law known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, which is directed against Russian arms industry but becomes applicable to third parties that enter into arms deals with Moscow.
If CAATSA sanctions click in, Turkey, which is mired in recession due to the US pressure tactic on its economy, may descend into a free fall of its currency. Incipient signs are already available. Even minor US sanctions could trigger another sharp sell-off in the Turkish lira that deepens the recession. Last year, Turkish lira shed 30 percent of its value, and the currency is down another 10 percent recently, and markets remain on edge.
Simply put, Turkey is so much integrated into the western economies and banking system that any US sanctions would inevitably have a crippling effect. And if there is one message out of Turkey’s recent local elections, it is that the state of the domestic economy could directly impact President Recep Erdogan’s political standing. The point is, despite all the brave chatter about dethroning the dollar, the hard reality is that the US is in a position to “weaponise” the dollar for the foreseeable future and all the King’s men and all the King’s horses — in Moscow and Beijing or Tehran and Caracas or wherever — have to live with that reality.
Besides, in Turkey’s case, a life outside the Western system is simply unthinkable. The Turkish elite are acutely conscious of Ataturk’s legacy that the modernisation of the country demands integration with the West. True, Turkey under President Recep Erdogan is redefining its identity but reclaiming Ottoman legacies in the Muslim Middle East does not and will not mean turning the back on Europe. Paradoxically, Turkey’s strategic autonomy is best preserved by being part of the western alliance system, considering the country’s tough neighbourhood.
No doubt, the stakes are high for Turkey. Unsurprisingly, soon after the visit to Moscow on April 8, Erdogan decided to depute a high-powered team of officials to Washington. The indications are that Erdogan came away from Moscow not quite convinced of the Kremlin’s assiduous wooing of him with an alternative non-western road map for Turkey’s future. At any rate, a team of senior Turkish ministers visited Washington last week for talks aimed at easing the crisis, which included the powerful Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, son-in-law of Erdogan.
The hugely consequential mission of Turkish ministers (which also included Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and Erdogan’s key advisor Ibrahim Kalin) culminated in an unexpected Oval Office meeting for Albayrak with President Donald Trump, with only son-in-law and top aide Jared Kushner and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin present.
(President Trump receiving Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albyrak at the Oval Office in the White House, Washington, April 18, 2019)
Turkish officials have since exuded optimism that Trump has a “more positive attitude” to Turkey’s pleas than the US Congress where Turkey has almost no cheerleaders.
The catch, however, is that CAATSA, which was legislated in the backdrop of Trump’s alleged “Russia collusion”, has been written precisely with the idea that Trump will have no loopholes to bypass it or dilute the sanctions legislation against Russian arms industry. In fact, for granting a waiver to Turkey in the present case, Trump by law would have to show that the S-400 purchase was not a “significant transaction”, and that it would not endanger the integrity of NATO or adversely affect US military operations.
Again, Trump would also need to show in a letter to congressional committees that the S-400 missile deal would not lead to a “significant negative impact” on US-Turkish cooperation, and that Turkey is taking, or will take, steps over a specific period to reduce its Russian-made defence equipment and weapons. It is a difficult proposition, but doable — provided there is political will.
Trump’s decision to receive Albayrak — it is absolutely unprecedented for POTUS to hold talks with a visiting finance minister — signals that the great dealmaker is on the prowl and would have some formula under his sleeve. Significantly, Trump has not weighed in on Turkey in recent weeks. A senior Turkish official told Reuters that the talks in Washington were “more positive than expected” and the Americans expressed “a softer tone” than they take in public. Another Turkish official added, “There might certainly be some steps to be taken but the search for common ground will continue.”
The Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters on Thursday: “We’re closer” to a final decision on the S-400s after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart. “It’s like: ‘OK, where are we stuck? How do we get unstuck?” he said of the talks, adding he was optimistic and hopeful of visiting Turkey for the formal transfer of F-35 stealth aircraft, which Turkey plans to buy and Washington is threatening to block if Turkey pressed ahead with the S-400 deal with Russia.
Of course, Turkish-American relationship is littered with several other disputes too — military strategy in the Syrian conflict, Iran sanctions, Turkey’s extradition request to Washington in regard of the Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen (whom Ankara blames for a failed 2016 military coup) and so on. But the crisis over the S-400 missile deal is the mother of all disputes, since it is directly linked to the viability of the 7-decades old Turkish-American alliance, the Russian strategies in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, US-Russia tensions and the US’ capacity to influence the Middle East politics as a whole.
What is happening is that after a brinkmanship played out through months at different levels, the crisis over the S-400 affair is reaching a nail-biting finish, with Turkey and the US having reached the edge of the precipice, peeing into the abyss and not liking what they see in the darkness and groping for a way to pull back somehow. If they succeed, it will have to be on a “win-win” basis. Read a commentary in the pro-government Turkish daily Sabah entitled This picture gives us hope.