Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence to go ahead with the controversial S-400 Russian missile deal has sent shockwaves throughout much of the Middle East, Gulf region, and all the way to Washington. Parts of the most sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-missile system in the world have already started arriving in a Turkish airbase near the capital, Ankara, amid increasing tension and a new crisis between the two NATO member states, the United States and Turkey. This crisis threatens to further undermine an already tense relationship between presidents Trump and Erdogan.
Now, the Russian missile system that was originally designed to shoot down NATO aircraft and missiles is being deployed on the soil of a NATO member state. Paradoxical as this may sound, the new Turkish move, defying strenuous American objections and the threat of sanctions, is bound to have some serious ramifications, bringing the heated disagreement between Trump and Erdogan to a boiling point. This jeopardizes Turkey’s already uneasy place in the NATO alliance. Talks in Washington, and deliberations among NATO members regarding almost certain punitive sanctions against Turkey, have gained momentum over the past few days, and are seen as only a matter of time.
Some analysts claim that Erdogan’s trust in the American administration, and Turkey’s supposedly Western allies at large, may have eroded dramatically following the failed coup attempt against the Turkish president and his AK ruling party on 15 July 2016. Many Turks believe that NATO allies did not stand up for Turkey, and that the West turned a blind eye during the coup, but that Moscow was more supportive of the Turkish leadership, and thus prevented a major catastrophe from befalling their country.
Collaboration between Putin and Erdogan seems to have culminated in the strategic S-400 missile deal. While some Russian and Turkish politicians are raising their glasses to the occasion, as Turkey began receiving the first shipment of a sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missile system last Friday, others in Washington are contemplating all possible harmful sanctions against the unruly Turkish leader.
The sophisticated S-400 system is able to engage up to 80 different targets simultaneously. It includes advanced radar to detect aircraft and other targets, boasts a record success rate, operates in all weather conditions, and is almost impossible to jam. No wonder the United States has been unyielding in its opposition to Turkey’s acquisition of the equipment, which is deeply troubling to Washington on several levels – military, political and even economic. The deal is said to be worth over two billion US dollars, and opens the way for more deals with Russia, not only by Turkey, who set the precedent, but also for other NATO member states who might now be encouraged to follow suit.
The S-400 deal puts Russian technology inside the territory of a key NATO ally, from where several US air strikes into Syria were staged over the past few years. The Russian engineers who will be required to set up the system, American officials fear, will have an opportunity to learn much about the American-made fighter jets that are also part of Turkey’s arsenal. Therefore, the Trump administration was quick to block the delivery of the F-35 stealth fighter jet, one of the United States’ most advanced aircrafts, to Turkey, and has suspended the training of Turkish pilots who were learning how to fly it.
Advocates of the S-400 deal, few as they may be among NATO members, claim that the alliance, in turn, might glean some Russian secrets from Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian state-of-the-art missile system. They also maintain that the purely ‘defensive’ system poses no threat to others, so why the big fuss? Pentagon strategists, however, see the S-400 deal as part of a plot by President Putin to divide NATO.
“The political ramifications of this are very serious, because the delivery will confirm to many the idea that Turkey is drifting off into a non-Western alternative,” said Ian Lesser, director of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
The deal demonstrates that the Turkish president is not satisfied with the protection that his country has been receiving from NATO, although the alliance has stationed the American-made Patriot surface-to-air missile system on Turkish soil since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria. Erdogan launched a strong counter attack against critics of the S-400 deal, insisting that his country needs its own long-range defensive system, ridiculing any notion that he needs permission “from others” to protect his country.
Although Turkey had tried to buy its own Patriot system for years, talks with Washington failed to produced a deal – a result that President Trump, at the Group of 20 meeting last month, blamed on the Obama administration.
“It’s a mess,” Trump said. “And honestly, it’s not really Erdogan’s fault.”
Meanwhile, Turkish Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, reiterated his country’s hope to purchase the Patriot system, along with its Russian counterpart. As the first parts of the Russian air-defense system were arriving in Ankara, Akar was shown on TRT, the state-run TV network, saying: “We are still looking to procure the Patriot system, and our institutions are working intensively in that direction.”
The two parties are not letting their stances in the Syrian war get between them. Russia has long backed the Assad government, while Turkey has supported Islamic radical rebel factions, and despite two unforgettable incidents that sparked a major crisis and even threatened a military confrontation between Ankara and Moscow, namely the Turkish downing of a Russian SU-24 jet near its southern borders with Syria in 2015, and the following year’s assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey by a Turkish policeman, the landmark S-400 deal culminates a growing bond between presidents Putin and Erdogan. This seems to justify an old Arabic proverb:
You can only make a good friend, after a good thrashing!