The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The Turkish rupture could cause a fissure in NATO



The U.S.-Turkey relationship is facing a crisis. This is because, unlike in the past, Ankara has no powerful friends in Washington. And if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan purchases the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, a deal to which Washington vehemently objects, this will cause a historic rupture between allies.

In 2002, when I began working as a policy analyst in Washington, the U.S. military was Turkey’s biggest fan. Today, it is Ankara’s biggest adversary. It takes two to tango and many rifts have caused this shift, including wars in two of Turkey’s neighbors — Iraq in 2003 and Syria since 2012.

{mosads}More recently, the Pentagon’s view of Turkey has taken a nosedive. Since 2014, the United States has relied on Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to fight the Islamic State. The YPG is the offshoot of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terror-designated entity by Washington and Ankara.

The PKK has carried out numerous attacks against Ankara and Turkish civilians since the 1980s, killing tens of thousands. Turkey views it as an existential threat. Starting in 2016, Ankara launched incursions into Syria to undermine the PKK-ally YPG. Many in the U.S. military, however, consider Ankara’s targeting of the YPG as undermining America’s battle against the Islamic State. These events have re-crafted the Pentagon’s historic perception of Turkey — from a NATO ally, to an “obstructionist power.”

Furthermore, the U.S. Congress loathes Turkey’s president for his transgressions from jailing U.S. citizens to his security detail beating up American demonstrators at Sheridan Circle in Washington in May 2017, to his widespread human rights abuses in Turkey.

With the exception of a small group of officers at the Department of State and elsewhere, the Pentagon’s view of Turkey as an “obstructionist power” has spread across all branches of the U.S. government. A perfect storm is brewing in Washington: The same circles that do not like Turkey also vehemently oppose its decision to procure Russian-made missile defense system.

Washington objects to this purchase because the S-400s poses a threat to U.S. flagship combat stealth aircraft project, the F-35, which is meant to provide a global edge to America and its allies. Further complicating the issue: the Russian S-400 system is designed to be the Achilles’ heel to America’s F-35 planes.

Washington fears that locating the two systems in each other’s vicinity in Turkey would allow the Russian military to “paint” the picture of the stealth plane on Moscow’s radar systems, compromising the F-35 project.

Accordingly, Congress has threatened to slap Ankara with severe sanctions, such as kicking Turkey out of the F-35 program, among others. The Senate has declared that Ankara also will come under CAATSA sanctions, which target Russia’s defense industry, if it seals the S-400 deal.

To make matters worse, President Trump will not stand in the way of sanctions. He has a transactional view of U.S. ties with Turkey: Trump wants Erdogan to “buy American” and has just signaled that his administration is prepared to up the ante against him.

This is why Vice President Mike Pence tweeted on April 3: “Turkey must choose. Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our NATO alliance?”

Trump’s model to deal with the Turkish president is the 2018 “Brunson Crisis” between Trump and Erdogan over the arrest of American pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey, in which Trump won.

At the time, after Erdogan failed to respond to Pence’s July 2018 tweet demanding Brunson’s release, Trump escalated pressure quickly, slapping Turkey with economic sanctions. Erdogan backed off and released the pastor in October.

This time, however, Erdogan has no room to retract — from his deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The latter is keenly aware that Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system will lead to a rupture between Ankara and Washington, creating a fissure inside NATO. Putin will not allow Erdogan to cancel the S-400 deal without extracting a pound of flesh from him.

Putin has leverage over Erdogan in Syria. Turkey’s military operations there against the YPG are at the mercy of Moscow, which controls Syria’s airspace. If Erdogan revoked the S-400 deal, Putin would ask Ankara to vacate Syria. This development will result in the creation of a PKK-friendly entity abutting Turkey’s longest land border — an unacceptable outcome in the Turkish capital.

Unless Turkish and American diplomats can construct a contingency plan, whereby Ankara delays the S-400 system’s arrival for any number of excuses, and in return, Washington holds off on sanctions and quietly starts providing Turkey with ironclad security guarantees against Russia and the YPG, a rift in U.S.-Turkish relationship is, in fact, unavoidable.

With the current trajectory, this will throw bilateral ties into a worse crisis than the 1974 Cyprus War, following which Washington punished Ankara with an arms embargo. During the Cold War rift, Turkey was eager to come back to America’s fold, and even then, it took half a decade for bilateral ties to be fully restored.

This time, with Russia signaling its readiness to provide Turkey with weapons and security in Syria, and Putin wooing Erdogan daily, a rupture will be deeper and last longer.

Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.” Follow him on Twitter @SonerCagaptay.

Tags Donald Trump Mike Pence Politics of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Russia–Turkey relations Turkey–United States relations Turkish involvement in the Syrian Civil War Vladimir Putin

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More International News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video