This article was published in Ahval News on March 15, 2019.
More U.S. pressure on Turkey because of Russian S-400 missiles
The United States continues to put pressure on Turkey to prevent it from deploying Russian S-400 air defence missiles. Last month, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence talked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to convey, on behalf of President Donald Trump, U.S. concerns about the purchase of the S-400 system. It is worth noting that the message was ‘on behalf of President Trump’, because Erdoğan frequently mentions that he has a positive dialogue with the U.S. president, but various departments in Washington deviate from his instructions or mislead him.
Erdoğan remained undeterred after this telephone conversation. He even went one step further by saying that Turkey may be interested in buying the more sophisticated version of this air defence system, namely the S-500.
Last week, U.S. pressure came in a chorus from the Pentagon, State Department and a number of senior congressmen. They all warned Turkey of grave consequences, if Ankara does not change its attitude. The specific threats are to bar the delivery of sophisticated F-35 fighter aircraft and Patriot missiles and other unspecified sanctions that may be imposed by the Congress.
Turkey rightly insists that a sovereign country has the right to acquire any defence system it chooses; that the purchase of Russian S-400s is a done deal and that Turkey had to turn to Russia because the United States was attaching strings to Turkey’s purchase of the Patriot missiles. Turkey asked to buy the Patriots with U.S. credit and put as a condition some transfer of technology. It took 17 months for the United States to respond and last week Turkey said the U.S. answer was not satisfactory.
It is not realistic to expect Turkey to step back and give up the purchase of S-400s. The first part of the system will be delivered in July and the second part in October. If there is a deviation from this programme for a reason stemming from Turkey, it will damage Turkey’s credibility and harm its relations with Russia. So there is stalemate on the entire deal.
The United States used an unrelated subject last week to further irk Turkey on the S-400 issue. First Lady Melania Trump paid a visit to a charter school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman, said in an email message that the school “was recognised with the 2018 National School of Character award and was chosen because of its excellent academics and commitment to character education. The school was recommended and vetted before the visit.” The school was described in a White House statement on Feb. 28 as “an award-winning elementary school that focuses on incorporating character education throughout its curriculum.”
There would have been nothing unusual with this visit, if the school were not run by the Gülen movement, led by a Turkish cleric – Fethullah Gülen – who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government is furious about anything done to promote Gülen’s image. It has been lobbying for years to close down the schools run by the movement. Several court cases have been initiated in the United States to bring this about.
Despite U.S. efforts to trivialise the visit, there are reasons for assuming that it contained a message to Turkey. The United States is aware that the Gülen issue is one of the most sensitive issues between the two countries. Any U.S. move on this subject is carefully watched by Turkey.
All of these threats and messages led Erdoğan to tone down his rhetoric and he said last week the divergence of views between Turkey and the United States could be solved in line with the two countries’ overlapping interests.
This is the first conciliatory approach by Erdoğan to Turkish-U.S. relations and it may be a sign that the president’s entourage sensed that there is a problem, and a serious one, that needs to be solved or pushed under the carpet at least until the Turkish local elections on March 31.
Turkish-U.S. relations need to be handled with caution, rather than through mutual recriminations.