- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Trump administration is threatening a major break with Turkey, blacklisting the NATO ally from access to America’s next-generation F-35 fighter jet if Ankara follows through on plans to buy an advanced S-400 missile system from Russia — a standoff likely to result in friction when President Trump meets with his Turkish counterpart this week.

Mr. Trump’s planned face-to-face meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan may get overshadowed by engagements with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it could be a major turning point in U.S.-Turkish relations, analysts say.

U.S. officials insist Mr. Trump won’t back down on his demand that Turkey not purchase the S-400 system on grounds that the Russian-made platform is designed to spy on U.S. weapons systems and to shoot at American fighter jets.

The S-400 is a “Russian intelligence-gathering platform,” a senior Trump administration official told The Washington Times. “Turkey’s planned acquisition of [it] will have severe consequences on the U.S. relationship with Turkey … including suspension of procurement and industrial participation in the F-35 program and exposure to sanctions.”

Acting Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper delivered that message directly in a meeting Wednesday with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Mr. Esper told reporters traveling with him ahead of the meeting that “the message is pretty straightforward. Look, Turkey has been a long-standing and trusted partner and ally for many, many years. But this pursuit of the S-400 undermines that.”

“If Turkey procures the S-400, it will mean they will not receive the F-35. It’s that simple,” Mr. Esper said.

The Turkish government apparently showed no sign of budging a day after Mr. Erdogan revealed that the first major components of the S-400 will arrive in July. “The issue of S-400 is an issue directly related to our sovereignty, and we will not backtrack from that,” he said in a televised speech, according to the Arabic news network Al-Jazeera.

Mr. Erdogan made similar comments last month. He even dispatched a delegation to Washington to hammer home to U.S. lawmakers and journalists that he won’t be deterred by the Trump administration’s threats. “It is a done deal. It is finished,” Deputy Turkish Foreign Minister Yavuz Selim Kiran told reporters at the Turkish Embassy.

One member of the delegation argued that Turkish officials had spent more than a decade trying to persuade Washington to sell Ankara a missile defense system comparable to the S-400, only to be repeatedly spurned.

The senior Trump administration official dismissed that account and said U.S. officials have been trying to sweeten a long-standing offer to sell Turkey an advanced American-made Patriot missile system, compatible with existing NATO platforms and replete with communications equipment and training programs.

“In January 2019, the United States made our strongest possible offer on the Patriot air and missile defense system, a viable alternative to the S-400,” said the official, citing a little reported news release by the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency showing that the Trump administration alerted Congress in late December that Turkey was being offered the Patriot system.

In addition to 20 M903 launching stations, the offer included 80 Patriot MIM-104E guidance-enhanced missiles, 60 PAC-3 missiles and other “related equipment for an estimated cost of $3.5 billion,” according to the release.

A State Department spokesperson said the Patriot offer will be withdrawn if Turkey goes ahead with the S-400.

It may be too late to avoid a clash over the S-400. The head of Russia’s Rosoboronexport arms company said Wednesday that all preliminary measures for the deal had been completed. Rosoboronexport Director General Alexander Mikheev told the Interfax news agency that Russia had received payment for the system, manufactured all the hardware and even trained the Turkish military personnel who will operate the system.

More points of contention

The S-400 deal isn’t the only point of contention in the U.S.-Turkish relationship since Mr. Trump came to office despite relatively strong diplomatic and economic ties between Washington and Ankara.

U.S. military support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, whom Turkey says are terrorists, has infuriated Mr. Erdogan. Turkey also has demanded that Washington extradite Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of plotting a failed 2016 coup against Mr. Erdogan.

Americans have been frustrated over the Erdogan government’s restrictions on civil liberties, and the U.S. has filed federal charges against Halkbank, a major state-owned Turkish bank that is accused of violating sanctions on Iran.

Ankara has resisted the U.S. pressure campaign on Iran. Instead, it has maintained public diplomatic and economic ties with Tehran despite Mr. Trump’s efforts to isolate the regime.

The Turkish Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but the reasoning behind Mr. Erdogan’s desire for the Russian-made S-400 remains a subject of intense speculation in national security circles.

Turkish officials have reportedly argued that the S-400 is about $1 billion cheaper than the Patriot package that Washington put on the table.

However, one American source said there is consensus among some U.S. officials that Mr. Erdogan’s pursuit of the Russian system stems from fears that rogue elements of the Turkish military could attempt another coup against him using American-made F-16s that are already in Turkey’s arsenal.

“If coup plotters somehow had control of the F-16s and were firing on the parliament building, Erdogan’s take on this may be that he wants regime protection,” said the source, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. “His thinking could be that if he had U.S.-made air defenses like the Patriot system in place, it might somehow be technically blocked from shooting down a U.S.-made aircraft like the F-16. The Russians may have sold him on the idea that if he just gets a couple of Russian-made S-400s, it would give him protection in such a situation.”

Others argue that the reasoning is less conspiracy-oriented. They say Mr. Erdogan is acquiescing to Russian pressure to buy the S-400 in order to smooth tense relations between Ankara and Moscow.

The relations hit a low point after Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian Su-24 military plane that had violated Turkish airspace in 2015. They sank even lower in 2016 after an off-duty Turkish police officer assassinated Russia’s ambassador at an Ankara art gallery.

“When looked at in the broad context of Turkey’s relationship with Russia, one cannot but conclude that the S-400 contract was the price Turkey had to pay to put behind the downing of the Su-24, the murder of the ambassador and thus restore its cooperation with Moscow,” former Turkish diplomat Ali Tuygan wrote in a recent analysis posted on his blog, Diplomatic Opinion.

But will the subsequent fallout with Washington be worth it?

Omer Taspinar, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, said the S-400 issue has “paradigm-shifting potential.”

“It clearly shows that the Turkish and American militaries no longer see each other as partners,” Mr. Taspinar wrote in an analysis published recently on the think tank’s website. “The Turkish decision to buy Russian missile defense is symptomatic of a much larger geostrategic predicament: Washington and Ankara no longer share the same strategic interests and threat perceptions.

“What’s more, both are actively engaged in working against each other,” Mr. Taspinar said. “It is one thing to see things differently, but partnering with each other’s rivals has clearly created a radical mental shift in the way the two militaries contemplate each other.”

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