Trump-Erdogan Meeting at the G20: End of the S-400 Crisis?

President Donald Trump and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka on June 29 in their first face-to-face encounter this year. The meeting was a widely anticipated component of the ongoing dialogue they have maintained since Trump assumed the presidency, which has included frequent telephone conversations the most recent of which was on May 29. The U.S.-Turkish agenda has long been burdened by a number of unresolved bilateral issues, most notably the case of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Muslim cleric whose extradition has been repeatedly demanded by Ankara for allegedly masterminding the failed July 15, 2016 coup, and U.S. cooperation in northern Syria with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces, which Turkey identifies as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, the main item for the two leaders’ discussion was the impending delivery to Turkey of the Russian S-400 missile system and its potentially serious implications for the relationship.

While Trump had not commented publicly on this issue, there had been many warnings by administration officials, including former acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and Mark Esper, the current acting secretary of defense, parallel to growing calls from Congress, relating to the possibility of the suspension of Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 fighter program along with its acquisition of 116 of the advanced fighter jets, as well as the imposition of secondary sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

Undeterred by the warnings, Erdogan persisted in reaffirming Turkey’s irrevocable commitment to proceed with the transaction while denouncing U.S. threats of action against an ally. Significantly, Erdogan focused his ire on officials working for Trump while expressing confidence that the U.S. president would block possible sanctions. On June 20 for example, Erdogan said, “our relations with Trump are very different to those below him. Consequently, I give zero chance to the possibility of the implementation of sanctions.” As he was leaving Ankara for the G20 on June 26, Erdogan said, “I never got the impression in meetings with Trump that there might be sanctions.”

In brief remarks immediately prior to their meeting, Erdogan confined himself to stressing “the strategic partnership between the two countries” along with his “conviction that this solidarity would be maintained.” In his more extensive statement, Trump chose to flatter his Turkish counterpart in typical fashion in front of the journalists in the room by declaring that it was “an honor to be with a friend, somebody I have become very close to” who was “doing a very good job.” While he claimed that their meeting would focus on trade, Trump confirmed in response to a question that the S-400 issue would be discussed as it was “a problem, no question about it.” However, Trump commented, “it was a complicated situation because the President [Erdogan] was not allowed to buy the [U.S.] Patriot missiles . . . until after he made a deal to buy other missiles.” He continued by saying “you can’t do business that way. It’s not good . . . He is a NATO member, he’s somebody that I have become friendly with. I don’t think he was treated fairly.” Just before the press corps was ushered out, Trump added “We’re looking at different solutions.”

The first public comments after the meeting, which had an unwieldy format involving translators whispering in the ears of the principals while 10 officials from each side including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton on the U.S. side looked on, were provided by Trump in his press conference. Responding to a question on whether Turkey would face sanctions if it went ahead with the S-400 purchase, he once again began his answer with a praise of Erdogan. Calling him “a tough cookie,” Trump said, “He is tough, but I get along with him . . . He could be an ally if he respected the president and he’s got a big army.” He also made a point of underlining the release last year by Turkey of Andrew Brunson as a positive factor in their relationship by saying, “He gave me our pastor back. Nobody else could get him back . . . I called him and after a very short period of time, Pastor Brunson was standing in the Oval Office with me.”

Trump then expanded on his earlier assertion that Erdogan had turned to the S-400 only because the Obama administration would not sell Patriots to him. Trump said, “He kept wanting to buy it, they kept saying no, no, no . . . he needed it for defense, so he went to Russia and bought the S-400.” He continued, “As soon as he bought it, people went back to him from our country and they said, ‘Listen, we don’t want you to use that system, because it’s not the NATO system’, et cetera, et cetera. ‘Do us a favor—we’ll sell you the Patriot.’ He said, ‘It’s too late. I already bought it.’ There was nothing he could do; he had already bought it.”

Turning to the F-35s, Trump commented, “In the meantime, he bought over a hundred F-35’s . . . And there’s options for more. And now he wants delivery. He’s paid a tremendous amount of money, up front to Lockheed—our company, our jobs, everything.” He later added, “And now they’re saying he’s using the S-400 system, which is incompatible with our system, and if you use the S-400 system, Russia and other people can gain access into the genius of the F-35 . . . Not from the standpoint of compatibility, but from our standpoint, national security wise.”

Having thus effectively absolved Erdogan from blame for the crisis while pointing the finger directly at the previous administration, Trump conspicuously refrained from underlining the warnings from senior members of his administration, as well as Congress, that Turkey could not have the F-35 if it obtained the S-400. He ended by saying, “So it’s a mess and honestly it’s not really Erdogan’s fault. So now we have breaking news. ‘Donald Trump loves Turkey. He loves Turkey. Donald Trump is on the side of Turkey instead of the United . . .’ No, I’m not.”

In his own press conference, Erdogan made a point of confirming once again that the S-400 deal was “done.” Expressing satisfaction that “Trump had clarified the situation relating to sanctions through his statement,” Erdogan noted that he had “heard directly from him that no such action would occur.” He continued, “The statements coming from those below the President do not conform with his approach, but I am confident that they will not be able to undermine our bilateral relationship and we are continuing on our path with determination.” Erdogan said that Turkey was not just a buyer but also a coproducer of the F-35’s and added, “Having already paid 1.4 billion dollars and received delivery in the U.S. of four of the 116 planes ordered, we are now expecting the delivery of all of them.” He then pointedly referred to the fact that Turkey was proceeding with the planned purchase of 100 Boeing commercial planes even in the midst of the S-400 controversy.

In subsequent observations to Turkish journalists accompanying him, Erdogan praised Trump as “a trustworthy interlocutor” and said that he had informed the U.S. president that this was the reason he admired him. Describing the atmosphere at their meeting as “very positive,” Erdogan characterized Trump’s attitude as “supportive on the S-400 and F-35 issue” and underlined his appreciation of Trump’s “very clear and honest statements in his press conference” identifying Obama’s policies as the real source of the problem.

Reiterating once again that he had heard nothing from Trump along the lines of “we will impose these specific sanctions on you” either in telephone conversations or previous meetings, Erdogan said that their most recent discussion had elevated “the matter in hand to another level” with Trump saying, “you are right about the S-400s” and characterizing the threatened non-delivery of the F-35s as “unfair.” Saying that he was “confident we will pass this stage without any difficulties whatsoever,” Erdogan also expressed hope that the long-standing issue emanating from the possibility of a heavy U.S. Department of Treasury fine against Halkbank for breaking earlier Iranian sanctions would “be solved in the near future.” He also said that he expected Trump to visit Turkey this year. For his part, Trump confirmed that he had been invited and said that he would go “at some point.”

After saying that he had informed Trump that the first batch of the S-400s, which he claimed were “three times as good as the Patriots” and more attractive with respect to “many aspects, including financing, joint control and, of course, cost” would be delivered “in the next week or 10 days,” Erdogan then revealed intriguingly that the S-400 issue had been discussed at the G20 not only in his own meetings with Trump and Putin but also in the Trump-Putin meeting and had even come up in a conversation involving all three men. Erdogan said, “This is very important. Trump again said logical and positive things when the three of us got together. Putin had already briefed us about his own meeting with Trump. In other words, this matter is on the right track also in that dialogue.” He added, “Trump also made jokes about the S-400s to Putin near me. These were also good . . . however, let some things remain with me.”

Looking Ahead

In view of Trump’s extraordinary comments, Erdogan has ample reason to be even more confident than before that Trump will protect Turkey from serious sanctions after the delivery of the S-400s and the sense of optimism emanating from Osaka helped the Turkish lira gain against the U.S. dollar on the first trading day after the G20. However, the reality is that the administration is in the process of curbing Turkey’s involvement in the F-35, and it remains to be seen if and how Trump will intervene to stop it. As far back as April, the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that the F-35s transferred to Turkey but still on U.S. soil would not be delivered and announced that it would look for alternative suppliers to Turkish defense companies participating in F-35 production. Spokesperson Charles Summers stated categorically on April 1 that “The U.S. has been clear that Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 is unacceptable . . . Should Turkey procure the S-400, their continued participation in the F-35 program is at risk.”

In his strongly-worded letter to his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar on June 6, Shanahan reiterated that “Turkey will not receive the F-35 if it takes delivery of the S-400” and warned that, along with the indefinite suspension of F-35 material deliveries, the United States would take a series of actions designed to “suspend Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program by July 31.” A concrete step to that end was undertaken on June 12, when Turkey was excluded from the F-35 program CEO roundtable meeting in Washington. On June 25, Esper summarized the policy en route to a meeting with Akar in Brussels by saying, “If Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400, they will not receive the F-35. It's that simple.”

Significantly, Shanahan had also drawn attention to separate sanctions emanating from CAATSA. This message was reinforced by Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord on June 17 who said, "Everything outside of the F-35 from a defense perspective…would be subject to CAATSA sanctions.” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Katie Wheelbarger underlined the pressure exerted on the administration by Congress on May 30 when she said, “If we don't do the sanctions, they said they will just pass another law and make us do it.”

Under CAATSA, Trump is required to impose five or more secondary sanctions from a list of 12 on entities and individuals engaged in “significant transactions” with Russian defense and intelligence companies on its list, which includes Rosoboronexport, the manufacturer of the S-400. Although Trump could delay the application of sanctions by submitting to Congress “a written determination that the waiver is in the vital national security interests of the United States” or delay imposition by 180 days at a time by certifying that the entity is “substantially reducing the number of significant transactions,” it is far from clear whether this would be acceptable to Congress.

Reacting negatively to reports about the Trump-Erdogan meeting in an interview from Istanbul on June 30, Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s strongest supporters, said that he doubted whether Trump had actually told Erdogan that he would find a way around sanctions. Graham continued “It's impossible under our law . . . we also, a couple of days ago, passed legislation banning the sale of the F-35 to Turkey if they activate the Russian S-400 missile battery. There's no way we're going to transfer to Turkey the F-35 technology and let them buy a Russian missile battery at the same time . . . under our law, there is no discretion.” It is worth noting that, in addition to CAATSA, there are two spending bills and three other bills working their way through Congress with specific provisions on stopping the transfer of the F-35’s once Turkey receives the S-400s.

Trump’s failure to follow through on his promise to Erdogan last December to withdraw all U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, thus effectively disengaging from the YPG and clearing the way for a Turkish military operation—in part because of heavy lobbying by Graham and other Republican lawmakers—or to finalize the U.S.-Turkish roadmap relating to Manbij in northwestern Syria should serve as warnings relating to the dangers of overreliance on Trump’s words. Ironically, Trump’s inconsistency in his messaging was inadvertently highlighted in his Osaka press conference. Even as he was trying to further underline his close relationship with Erdogan, Trump put Turkey in a bad light by saying Erdogan “had a 65,000-man army at the border and he was going to wipe out the Syrian Kurds who helped us with ISIS . . . They were lined up to go out and wipe out the people that we just defeated the ISIS caliphate with, and I said, ‘You can’t do that’ and he didn’t do it.”

On July 3, Reuters reported Defense Department Spokesperson Mike Andrews as saying “nothing has changed . . . Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air and missile defense system is incompatible with the F-35 program. Turkey will not be permitted to have both systems.” The same article quoted an unnamed State Department spokeswoman saying, “The U.S. has consistently and clearly stated that Turkey will face very real and negative consequences if it proceeds with its S-400 acquisition, including suspension of procurement and industrial participation in the F-35 program and exposure to sanctions under CAATSA.” The two statements, which were made after Trump’s return to Washington, undercut Trump’s comments in Osaka.

Beyond his obvious desire to ensure a good meeting with Erdogan, it is entirely possible that Trump, who has a reputation for not reading briefing notes prior to meetings with foreign leaders, may not have been fully aware of the limits of his options to protect Turkey from sanctions. Needless to say, his inability or reluctance to intervene effectively in shaping policy on this issue, after having privately and publicly reinforced Erdogan’s conviction that he would do so, would inevitably aggravate the disappointment and sense of grievance on the Turkish side. Given his own control over all aspects of national security policy, Erdogan would find it difficult to understand why Trump failed to exercise similar control.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program