U.S.-Turkey Relations: Summer Doldrums, Autumn Storms?

The unusually close relationship between President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, characterized by frequent telephone conversations, friendly encounters, and mutual expressions of admiration, has tended to obscure the continuing deterioration of the seven-decade alliance between the United States and Turkey during the Trump administration. The long list of unresolved issues on the agenda expanded in July with the beginning of deliveries of the Russian S-400 missile system to Turkey despite U.S. objections. This brought to boil the long-simmering dispute between the two countries on the planned purchase and prompted the cancelation by the United States of Turkish involvement in the joint F-35 fighter plane program.
Even as reverberations of the Turkish move rumbled through the relationship, along with preliminary consideration of its short-and long-term implications, attention quickly shifted to Ankara’s revival of threats of military action in northern Syria. As Ankara intended, these forced Washington to focus once again on the problem caused by ongoing U.S. military cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) immediately below the Turkey-Syria border east of the Euphrates over sustained Turkish objections. The likelihood of an immediate unilateral Turkish military operation was averted when the two countries announced a preliminary agreement on August 7 on the creation of “a peace corridor,” as Turkey has characterized the safe zone it is seeking in northern Syria. This was followed by the establishment of a joint operation center on August 24 as part of the implementation of the agreement. However, important differences remain, and it seems unlikely that the agreement will usher in a new phase of cooperation in the near future.
With Erdogan making a hastily arranged visit to Moscow for a meeting with  President Vladimir Putin of Russia on August 27 and openly discussing an expansion of defense cooperation, it seems certain that the U.S. Congress, which returns from recess in the second week of September, will make a renewed bipartisan push for sanctions against Turkey under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). With negative sentiment toward Turkey rising in Congress and effectively neutralizing Trump’s demonstrated desire to maintain good relations, the alliance appears instead to be set for greater turbulence.
Erdogan’s S-400 Gambit, F-35 Cancelation
On July 12, Turkey received the first shipment of S-400 missile parts following long speculation in Washington about whether it would proceed with the planned purchase in view of the potentially serious effects on its alliance with the United States as well as its role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The move came as a blow to U.S. officials dealing with this issue, as most had tended to believe almost until the last moment that Erdogan would ultimately choose the Patriot missile system, repeatedly offered by the United States as an alternative. However, it is noteworthy that in all his relevant public statements on Turkey’s missile purchase options, Erdogan had not deviated from his position that the deal signed with Russia in 2017 was irrevocable and that he would consider buying the Patriot system only in addition to the S-400.
The lack of an immediate response by Washington to the S-400 delivery was a reflection not only of the extent of general disappointment within the administration over the failure to dissuade Erdogan but also of Trump’s own misgivings. On July 16 for example, Trump chose to repeat at a televised cabinet meeting the comments he had made after their meeting at the June G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan that had seemingly erased Erdogan’s concerns about the likelihood of sanctions. After once again blaming the previous administration for Turkey’s turn toward Russia, Trump continued “We are now telling Turkey that, because you have really been forced to buy another missile system, we’re not going to sell you the F-35 fighter jets. It’s a very tough situation that they’re in and it’s a very tough situation that we’ve been placed in.”
Even as Trump continued to display his aversion to sanctioning Turkey, officials below him were unanimous on the unavoidability of a riposte. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for example, said on July 14, “The law requires that there be sanctions and I am confident that we will comply with the law and President Trump will comply with the law.” Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper followed up at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on July 16 by saying, “You can either have the S-400 or you can have the F-35.” Esper was thus reiterating the position he had taken on June 25, when he had met Turkish minister of defence Hulusi Akar at a gathering of NATO defense ministers and said, “If Turkey procures the S-400, it will mean they will not receive the F-35. It's that simple.” Esper’s comments underlined the blunt message relating to the cancelation of the F-35 and possible CAATSA sanctions delivered to Akar by his recently resigned predecessor Patrick Shanahan in a letter on June 6. They also reflected the strong feelings of the uniformed branch. The incoming chairman of the Joint Staffs, General Mark Milley said on July 11, “My recommendation would be to discontinue the transfer of F-35 aircraft to Turkey and unwind Turkey from the F-35 program if Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400,” while the new commander of the U.S. European Command General Tod Wolters said on June 18, “We won’t co-locate those two assets, the S-400 and the F-35.”
Trump’s room to maneuver was further restricted by the strong reaction from Capitol Hill, spearheaded by two of Trump’s most important Congressional allies, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch (R-ID) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK). Within hours of the delivery of the first planeload of S-400 parts to Turkey, the two men issued a joint statement together with their respective ranking Democratic members, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jack Reed (D-RI). They warned, “On a strong bipartisan basis, Congress has made it clear that there must be consequences for President Erdogan’s misguided S-400 acquisition, a troubling signal of strategic alignment with Putin’s Russia . . . We call on the Department of Defense to proceed with the termination of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program.” Noting that the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, approved on June 27 by the Senate with an 86-8 vote, contained a “provision prohibiting the transfer of F-35 aircraft to Turkey should it accept delivery of the S-400,” they also “urged President Trump to fully implement sanctions as required by law under CAATSA” and reminded him that a floor amendment to the bill had called on him to do so.
The inevitable F-35 cancelation was announced by the White House on July 17. In a written statement it said, “Unfortunately, Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible. The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.” A few hours later, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord formally confirmed that Turkey’s involvement in F-35 program would be ended by saying “The U.S. and other F-35 partners are aligned in this decision to suspend Turkey from the program and initiate the process to formally remove Turkey from the program . . . Turkey cannot field a Russian intelligence collection platform in proximity to where the F-35 program makes, repairs, and houses the F-35.” The decision was welcomed in Congress. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) noted on July 24 that it was “utterly inconsistent for Turkey to have deployed both the S-400 Russian missile defense system and the F-35.” Identifying the F-35 cancelation as “the first issue in front of everyone,” Senator James Lankford (R-OK) said on the same day, “Are we going to sell the F-35s to Turkey? And the answer is no.”
After conspicuously refraining from commenting on the U.S. decision on the F-35’s for over a week, Erdogan responded on July 26. He said, “We have made payments of 1.4 billion dollars, but they are not allowing the four planes they transferred to our pilots in America to come here. Even after that they complain about why we bought the S-400 instead of the Patriots.” Targeting his ire away from Trump, Erdogan added, “I am now addressing the U.S. Congress by saying you would not give us the Patriots during the Obama administration; you are trying to be an obstacle again with the Trump administration.” 
There was similar restraint in the responses of the directly interested Turkish officials who also chose to imply that the country’s involvement in the F-35 program had not ended. Akar, for example, denounced on July 18 “the unilateral and unfair decision to try to remove Turkey, an important partner that has fulfilled all its obligations, from the project.” Ismail Demir, who heads the Defense Industry Directorate, said on the same day, “We have fulfilled our obligations and payments for the F-35 . . . This removal decision is not included in any agreement. The word ‘suspension’ is being used, not ‘removal, ‘that is not in effect.” Demir followed up on July 31 by saying “There is no legal basis for our removal from the program. We conveyed our desire to remain in the project . . . Turkey’s program partnership continues as of now.”
Trump’s Damage Limitation Effort
Having been obliged to order the F-35 cancelation, Trump endeavored to prevent further damage to his relationship with Erdogan by refraining from imposing sanctions in accordance with the CAATSA provision for “engaging in a significant transaction with a Russian defense industry.” Responding to questions at the White House on July 18 on whether Turkey would be sanctioned, Trump said “We’re not looking at that right now . . . The previous administration made some very big mistakes with regard to Turkey and it was too bad. We’ll see what we will do.” He then proceeded to display his reluctance on further measures at a meeting he convened at the White House on July 23 with 45 of the 53 Republican senators specifically to discuss Turkey.
Numerous news items based on information gleaned from participants confirmed that Trump had expressed unhappiness over the collapse of the F-35 sale to Turkey while repeating his opposition to CAATSA sanctions. According to the Washington Post and NBC News on July 24, Trump “advocated negotiations with Turkey instead of harsh sanctions” and argued that he could “use his relationship with Erdogan that would better rein in Turkey than any sanctions.” An unnamed senator was quoted as saying that Trump was “feeling constrained by Congress,” while Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) commented that Trump was “frustrated by what he sees as a lack of options” and wanted “more flexibility.” The news reports confirmed Trump’s willingness to display his susceptibility to Erdogan’s flattery by citing the latter’s praise of his abilities as a better dealmaker than former president Barack Obama, while trying to persuade them to give him “the space to cut a deal with Erdogan instead of adopting sanctions.”
Trump’s failure to gain acceptance in the meeting for his stance was confirmed by Lankford, who noted that while “the president was not a fan of sanctions as a tool,” his advisers were nonetheless “clear that they understand this is what’s required under CAATSA.” The strong bipartisan consensus behind this position was reinforced by a letter sent to Trump on the same day of the White House discussion by all of the Democratic members of Senate Foreign Relations Committee. After expressing disappointment at being excluded, they reaffirmed the need for implementation of sanctions and continued, “We agree with Secretary Pompeo and many Senate Republicans that sanctions must be imposed on Turkey in accordance with the law. We expect that you will follow the law and impose sanctions without delay.”
With Congress shutting down for its five-week recess on August 2, Trump got temporary relief from pressure to act and used it by turning to Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to open a backchannel to Erdogan. In addition to being one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, Graham had also developed a relationship with Erdogan, most notably during a January 2019 trip to Turkey when he had spent many hours with the Turkish leader and attended a concert with him. Graham had also suggested during a subsequent June visit to Istanbul, which did not include a meeting with Erdogan, that activation rather than delivery was the key factor in triggering CAATSA sanctions. He had said in a CBS interview on June 30, “The way around this is to get Turkey to back off activating the S-400, replace it with a Patriot missile battery . . . They're a very important ally, but under our law, there is no discretion. If they activate the S-400 Russian missile battery, they will be sanctioned under U.S. law.”
After placing calls to Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Erdogan on July 24 to convey his idea, Graham confirmed that Trump had “told him to call Turkey.” Explaining his proposal the following day, he said “If the S-400 is activated, then the relationship takes a very dark turn . . . Let’s stand down on the S-400, let’s start free trade agreement negotiations . . . Some of us are harder on Turkey than I am, [but] if the system gets activated, there are no options left.” Significantly, while Graham’s call to Cavusoglu was revealed immediately in Turkey, his phone conversation with Erdogan was not acknowledged in Ankara until there was a passing reference to it in the Foreign Ministry press conference on August 2.
By remaining silent on the Graham initiative, Erdogan was clearly indicating his unwillingness to retreat from his declared position that the S-400’s were essential for national defense and would become fully operational in early 2020. He was also signaling his continued reliance on Trump to deal with the sanctions threat from Congress. Having become disillusioned with Obama by 2013, following the honeymoon in relations during his first term, Erdogan had great hopes in Trump when he was as elected president in 2016. To be sure, Trump also disappointed him by failing to extradite Fethullah Gulen, accused of organizing the failed coup in 2016, or break with the YPG, especially after having promised to withdraw troops from northern Syria and effectively give Turkey free rein there in a phone conversation in December 2018. However, despite his inability to block the F-35 cancelation, Trump continued to retain Erdogan’s confidence.
On July 14, for example, Erdogan said, “I don’t believe Trump is of the same opinion as those under him. He made this loud and clear to them in front of the world media during our last meeting in Osaka. We have not detected any deviation from it so far.” He added, “There is talk of sanctions. I am guided by the impression I gathered from Trump. CAATSA does not cover Turkey, and this is not even a matter of discussion. Going further, there is also nothing there relating to the F-35’s.”
The following day, Erdogan boasted about his S-400 decision by deriding those who had argued “you could not buy them, you could not deploy them and that it would be wrong to do so.” He continued, “Our country was pushed into this choice. Trump’s statement at the G-20 is the highest-level confirmation that Turkey was not treated fairly. I believe that he will maintain his correct approach and not allow the S-400 issue to take Turkish-American relations hostage.” Erdogan added that he also expected “concrete moves” from Trump on the stalled negotiations relating to the extradition of Gulen and on ending the arming of the YPG, which Turkey sees as a terrorist group and as an extension of the PKK, which Turkey has been fighting since 1984.
The Congressional Factor
On August 6, Erdogan reaffirmed his belief yet again that Trump would “not allow Turkish-U.S. relations to become a captive of the S-400 issue” and that this issue would not “turn into a crisis.” However, Trump will find it difficult to justify Erdogan’s expectations relating to his ability to resist Congressional pressures. On July 31, Inhofe warned, “President Erdogan knows the consequences of its decision to purchase the S-400 from Putin—we made it abundantly clear. Trump made the right decision to remove Turkey from the F-35 program, and I look forward to the next steps on CAATSA sanctions.” On August 6, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) commented, “Either it matters or it doesn’t. What country in the world would ever listen to us in the future if we allow [Turkey] to do this without facing consequences?”
It is important to remember that CAATSA was adopted in 2017 with vetoproof majorities in both chambers over Trump’s objections as a response to Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and the legislation effectively stymied his declared commitment to open a new era of relations with Putin’s Russia. At the same time, the lack of definition, coherence, consistency, and organizational coordination in Trump’s overall foreign policy, and Turkey’s precise place within its contours, permitted Congress to insert itself into the conduct of the bilateral relationship. The current relevance of the Congressional factor in the equation is increasingly reminiscent of the three-year arms embargo Congress imposed on Turkey after its military intervention in Cyprus in 1974. Shorn of the unique mutual requirements imposed by the Cold War, which originally brought the two countries together and helped them to overcome that difficult episode along with less important problems for four decades, the current crisis has the potential to escalate to an even more serious level.
Although greater attention has been focused on the possibility of sanctions because of their likely negative impact on the troubled Turkish economy, the F-35 cancelation is, in fact, a more significant indicator of the serious downturn in the relationship. After all, the core of the U.S.-Turkey alliance was military cooperation and the support given by Washington to the development of the Turkish air force undoubtedly constituted its most important component. After first receiving the F-84’s and thus entering the fighter jet age in 1952 when it joined NATO with U.S. support, Turkey acquired in turn the F-100, F-104, F-4, F-5, and F-16 jets from the United States. Its continued participation, along with 8 other countries, in the U.S.-led F-35 project would have allowed Turkey to receive 116 of the fifth-generation fighter jets as part of its uninterrupted dependence on modern U.S. aircraft technology.
Beyond the denial of the F-35’s, there will also be a heavy financial cost incurred by the Turkish defense companies involved in the production of the fighter jet, estimated to be as high as $9 billion by Lord on July 17. When the additional impact of likely CAATSA sanctions is also taken into account, it must be presumed that there are very important counterbalancing factors in Erdogan’s calculations.  
Turning to Moscow
Erdogan’s stated rationale for the choice of the S-400’s over the Patriots stressed the technology transfer provision, early delivery date, and lower cost, as well as concerns over Congressional interference. The presumed effectiveness of the Russian missile system against a possible repeat of attacks by renegade F-16 pilots as in the 2016 coup attempt was almost certainly another, albeit unspoken, factor. Erdogan’s decision was also in line with the upward trend in Turkish-Russian relations. This was characterized by an astoundingly rapid rapprochement in 2016 after the severe tensions of the previous year, accelerated by Putin’s reported solidarity with Erdogan during the failed coup. It also reflected the growing economic interaction between the two countries, exemplified by the construction of the Turkstream pipeline to carry additional Russian gas for Turkish consumption and transportation to Europe.
Despite these considerations, it can plausibly be argued that the initiation of negotiations with Russia over the S-400’s was a tactical move by Erdogan not just to demonstrate the independence of Turkish decision making but also to try to force a change in unwelcome U.S. policies. The defense engagement with Russia began to develop its own momentum parallel to the persistence of the unresolved issues bedeviling the relationship. These included Erdogan’s lingering suspicions of Washington’s involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, implicitly confirmed for him by the continuing presence of Gulen on U.S. soil along with the failure to respond to repeated requests for his extradition. His S-400 move also tapped into the remarkably high distrust of the United States on the part of ordinary Turks, confirmed by an opinion survey in July which found that 89 percent of respondents saw the United States as a foe.
Needless to say, Putin was happy to take advantage of Erdogan’s willingness to break ranks with Washington. The strength and durability of their relationship was demonstrated by Erdogan’s reluctance to blame Moscow even as Syrian government forces together with Russian bombers targeted the last remaining opposition stronghold of Idlib, raising fears of a huge new refugee influx into Turkey. Significantly, Erdogan’s trip to Moscow this week was his fourth visit to Russia this year and occurred just days after a deadly attack by on a Turkish military convoy in Idlib. With their personal chemistry on full display, Putin and Erdogan publicly minimized their differences on Syria and stressed their commitment to cooperate in the context of the Astana process, which will once again bring them together in Ankara on September 16 along with the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.
Putin also escorted Erdogan on a televised tour of the International Aviation and Space Center where the Turkish leader climbed into the cockpit of the Su-57, the Russian fifth generation fighter jet, which the Russians are offering as an alternative to the F-35. Erdogan asked Putin, “Is this what we are buying?” to which the Russian leader replied, “you could.” More importantly, Erdogan said that “the solidarity on the S-400’s” could be “extended into other areas of defense industry . . . including fighter aircraft.” Identifying “joint production as the most important aspect” of Turkey’s defense cooperation with Russia, Erdogan left Demir behind to continue discussions with his counterpart. Not coincidentally, Russian transport planes were offloading the second batch of S-400 parts in Ankara even as the two leaders were meeting in Moscow.
Looking Ahead
Turkey is clearly venturing further into uncharted waters as no other NATO country has engaged Russia on defense cooperation to such an extent. While switching the Turkish defense system away from the United States will not be easy or smooth, the U.S.-Turkish defense cooperation has stalled, and the signposts of disengagement are multiplying. On August 22, the State Department formally confirmed that the U.S. offer of the Patriots had been rescinded. With the four F-35’s formally transferred to Turkey unable to leave U.S. territory, Turkish pilots who were being trained sent back as of July 31 and Turkish production of parts set to be phased out by March 2020, Esper reaffirmed on August 28 that Turkey would only be allowed back into the F-35 if it “gets rid of the S-400 program.” It is worth noting that Erdogan chose to reiterate his view on the same day that “the U.S. has not made its final decision on this issue.”
With Erdogan and Trump having yet another of their phone conversations on August 28, their first since their Osaka meeting, which was not followed by a readout at either end relating to the current crisis, it remains to be seen whether their continuing relationship will sustain the alliance between their countries. This will depend to a great extent on Trump’s ability to resist Congressional pressure for the imposition of CAATSA sanctions, once again demanded by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on August 27. While Trump can delay them if he can inform Congress that Turkey is “substantially reducing the number of significant transactions” with the Russian defense sector, it is difficult to see him use that argument successfully in view of the deepening Turkish engagement with Moscow.
If he is ultimately forced to act by Congress, Trump will almost certainly use his discretion to go for relatively lighter sanctions as he makes his choice on at least 5 out of the 12 CAATSA provisions. However, whichever ones he decides on, there will inevitably be a response from Erdogan—who is facing domestic challenges from the emboldened opposition and within his own party along with continuing economic difficulties and needs to project strength—and a further worsening of the relationship.
Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program