Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Turkey’s ‘done deal’ purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system is a definitive symbol; one signalling that the conflict between Turkey and the United States cannot be papered over anymore. It demonstrates that Turkey no longer views Washington as the guarantor in achieving its foreign policy objectives; the formal NATO allies’ interests are slowly becoming irreconcilable, while Turkey’s and Russia’s are shaping up to alignment. Through the deal, Turkey – the second largest NATO-military in a key geostrategic position within the Middle East – declared that the primacy of its military relationship with the US is reaching its end.
Other than symbolic political reasons, the practical logic behind the United States’ inability to continue its close alliance with Turkey – once the S-400 is integrated into their defence system – comes down to Turkey’s role as part of the sophisticated F-35 US fifth generation fighter jet programme within the NATO. Due to artificial intelligence logarithms in the S-400, vital US military intelligence information could end up in Moscow’s hands. Accordingly, Washington threatened Turkey with sanctions under its Countering Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Outraged by calling it an ‘adversary’, and despite Washington’s threats, Turkey declared that it does wish to go ahead with the purchase; this announcement is an acknowledgement that Turkey does not solely depend on Washington for military supply, underlining Erdogan’s efforts for a more independent foreign policy in the Middle East.
Turkey and the United States go way back as allies. But after the Cold War, the relationship became progressively counter-productive; Turkey’s prime security concern has become the Kurdish regional efforts for autonomy, while the US’ Middle East presence in the Iraqi and Syrian war created power-vacuums which empowered these very efforts.
The divergence of interests became obvious during the Syrian war. Even though Turkey took an anti-Assad stance, similarly to Washington, the reason behind Ankara’s decision was to unite the main ‘insider adversary’ – the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the south-eastern part of the country – with the PKK’s Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Uniting them behind a common objective was key as the upheaval and chaos caused by the Syrian war threatened with the revival of Kurdish autonomy efforts. However, the United States still prioritised its war on terror and countering jihadists whilst it grew weary of expensive military engagement; consequently, it shifted its policy to use local militant groups for counter-insurgency purposes. As jihadi groups sprang up in Northern Syria, the US’ choice fell on Kurdish militias, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and militant organisation of the PYD. Even though the US de facto abandoned the Syrian Kurds in late 2019, its former open support for Syrian Kurds decisively went against Turkish efforts to keep Kurdish empowerment under control and was interpreted as clear betrayal by Ankara.
Turkey’s turn towards Moscow ironically resulted from Moscow’s bombing of Turkish supply lines following the former’s shooting of a Russian SU-24 bomber in late 2015. This cut Ankara out of the conflict, forcing it to reduce its ambitions. Turkey now had to rely on Moscow as the flow of refugees to its borders became unmanageable; additionally, Russia proved to be the only actor capable of pressurising Bashar al-Assad to limit combat operations and lessen the tide of refugees.
The future of US-Turkey relations remains uncertain; Turkey seems willing to negotiate about the degree of implementation of the S-400, but this is probably not enough for salvation. This tension has been further demonstrated by Biden’s pushing on a sore spot in Turkish history by declaring that the 1915 Armenian massacre was a deliberate genocide, not improving the chances of reconciliation. Within Turkey, anti-US sentiments are incredibly high. The S-400 deal is ultimately a symbol of deterioration: while there is precedent that ‘foreign’ defence systems were integrated into NATO militaries (such as the Russian S-300 in Greece), this time it is way too politically charged to be accepted.