A deferred rupture between Turkey and US

No matter who wins the U.S. elections next week, if Ankara is truly determined on activation of Russian made S-400 missile defense systems, then in the first half of 2021, it is inevitable that Turkish-American relations will be hit by a severe S-400 turbulence – in all dimensions.

My first piece that appeared at Gazete Duvar on July 11, 2019 was titled “A crisis apt for continuous postponement.” I had written this article right after the first batch of Russian made S-400 missile defense systems was delivered to Turkey. It was inevitable, I wrote, that this issue would eventually take the Ankara-Washington relationship into the edge of a deep cliff. I did not mean to make a prophecy. Anybody who made a realistic political review within the legal framework in the U.S. could have made the same prediction. They did so, anyway. Let us say, everybody, except the government trolls on social media who clutched at Trump like a drowning man.

In the 15 months that have passed, I must admit that U.S. President Donald Trump performed much better than I expected in the postponement of the sanctions for Turkey. This happened despite Ankara’s “Operation Peace Spring” in Syria which further strained the relationship. So much so that, Trump went as far as to repeat in front of the cameras the soufflés given to him by mediators lobbying for Ankara. Trump won the heart of Ankara once more by saying that President Erdoğan had to buy the S-400 because the Obama administration did not sell Patriots to Turkey. He added this was an injustice done to a NATO ally. 

However, his administration, too, continued to impose a de facto arms embargo to Turkey. Trump, who has a long record of altering facts, manipulated the Patriot story, but it was caught on the radar of the American press. The “independent” Turkish media on the other hand continued to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is close to Trump, played a considerable role in the Congress in making this period sanction-free for Turkey by curbing to a certain extent the reaction targeting Turkey. In coordination with the White House, Graham was able to prevent - to a certain degree – any impulsive steps from angry Republican senators with his argument, “Unless Turkey activates the missiles, there will not be any harm inflicted on U.S. interests.”   

The Beştepe Presidential Palace in Ankara was well aware of Trump’s efforts to postpone the sanctions. With the logic of “throwing out a sprat to catch a mackerel,” Ankara passed over the April 2020 deadline previously declared for the activation of S-400s.

This was because Ankara had eroded the Central Bank’s foreign currency reserves to an alarming level to keep the exchange rate at a certain figure. To save the day, the Erdoğan government was wishing that the Fed would open swap lines to Turkey. The real reason why the Turkish government decided to postpone the activation of S-400 was an effort to look nice to the U.S. decision makers. The COVID-19 pandemic, which spread all over the world in exactly these months, was the pretext and cover for postponing the activation. Nobody felt the need for an explanation on what kind of a relationship there would be between the outbreak and the electronic activation of missiles and radar already stationed on the Turkish territory.

In fact, those in Ankara who were familiar with the issue were well aware how difficult it was for Trump to ask for a favor from the Fed and achieve it. The Fed has been continuously in an effort to prove its autonomous position within the administration at every opportunity. After all, it was not the first time they were pursuing a very unlikely situation… Sometimes they were able to hit the target, as in Trump’s series of sudden decisions in Syria. But this time it did not happen. The swap line that was desired was found in Qatar in May. 

Following this, with the addition of the lockdowns, the economy went downhill in free style in the summer months. The dreaded U.S. sanctions had been delayed for a while but the dollar exchange rate could not be stopped and went past 8 Turkish Liras.

In order to veil the collapse of the economy, Beştepe spent the summer season by hanging a sign of “grand mosque” at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and rehearsing war in the East Mediterranean. When the need arose to have a foreign enemy for the crowds, thanks to French President Macron, Beştepe was able to find an abundance of supply. 

Every once in a while, there was also some need to reprimand the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Apart from that, in the first nine and a half months of 2020, relations with the U.S. were temporized, without letting the public know about mini crises.

Up until last week’s S-400 tests that were carried out in the Black Sea town of Sinop.  

It was only 17 days to the critical presidential elections in the U.S. when Beştepe decided to put the deep-frozen S-400 crisis on the counter. After a week of speculation, President Erdoğan personally confirmed the S-400 test. He announced that new tests would also be carried out. Turkey was not, after all, going to ask for permission from the U.S. for this.  

Meanwhile, Russian website Avia reported on October 16 that the S-400 test in Sinop failed because Ankara did not allow Russian experts to be present at the site. We are yet to find out whether or not this was a Kremlin-induced disinformation attempt. In Ankara, this issue has been conducted in extreme covertness since the beginning.

For instance, journalists hosted by Defense Minister Hulusi Akar at Polatlı, near Ankara, did not, of course, ask such questions to him whose name was carefully concealed in their reports.

Meanwhile, Washington reacted as expected while Beştepe was staging the S-400 test. The Pentagon and the State Department condemned the S-400 test in Sinop. Ankara was warned once more not to make the system operational. The White House, of course, remained silent. Erdoğan and his team had set out knowing that reactions would not go beyond this at the eve of the presidential elections. They knew that a possible sanctions decision would not be made tomorrow. If Trump was to be reelected on November 3, that would be a bonus for Ankara. If Democratic candidate Joe Biden was to win, as polls show, he would not be signing any decision until the swear-in ceremony in January 2021. During this temporary political vacuum ahead of the elections, Beştepe probably wanted to display an exaggerated swagger since now it has the opportunity.

If you take a careful look at the chronological order of events in the last turn of the S-400 story, you will be able to come across the traces of the steps the U.S. is ready to take next against Ankara. It was only a couple of hours after President Erdoğan verified Turkey’s test of Russian missiles on October 23 when the U.S. announced it had suspended all visa services in Turkey due to a security threat. It could be pure coincidence. But my experience in Washington makes me think that the U.S. decision to impose a temporary visa embargo on Turkey is an extension of the rage felt for the S-400 test rather than an intelligence of a terrorist attack. About three years ago, Washington had suspended its visa activities in Turkey in response to the detention of Metin Topuz, an employee at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul. After negotiations that lasted two and a half months, Ankara persuaded Washington to take a back step.

No matter who wins the U.S. elections next week, if Ankara is truly determined on activation, then in the first half of 2021, it is inevitable that Turkish-American relations will be hit by a severe S-400 turbulence – in all dimensions. Under current circumstances, a possible Biden administration will not open a blank page in relations with Turkey. Also, even if Trump continues to be the President, he will not be able to withstand for long the pressure from Congress to enforce the law.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, has introduced an amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) mandating the Trump administration implement CAATSA sanctions on Turkey within 30 days of passage of the NDAA. If Risch's proposal is to fly in the Senate after the November 3 elections, then we will be looking at a very grim start of 2021 regardless of who will be sitting in the Oval Office.