According to a recent story from Bloomberg, Turkey has asked for US Patriot missiles to be deployed in the Turkish border with northern Syria. This request has been made on the grounds that several Turkish servicemen have been killed over the last weeks in the region, and Patriots could work as a deterrence measure to potential airstrikes from the Syrian or Russian Air force. Official US sources, on the base of anonymity, have allegedly confirmed the request.
What Is Ankara’s Strategy in This Case?
Hulusi Akar, the Turkish Defence Minister, stated on 20 February 2020, during an interview with CNN Turk that some of the threats posed in the region, by Syria — or Russia — could be efficiently dealt with after the deployment of the Patriot system. Akar clarified that there is no suggestion whatsoever for the assignment of US troops in the area, a rather obvious conclusion one could say, given the US policy towards Syria and the Turkey-US thorny relations, in the recent past. The Turkish Defense Minister also mentioned that talks between Ankara and Washington about the acquisition of the Patriot system were still ongoing, a highly unlikely scenario under the current circumstances, as will be further explained shortly.
The Patriot statements should not take us by surprise at all, as President Erdogan himself has brought up the issue at least three times after the S-400 agreement. This aligns with the typical — and productive — Turkish strategy of never excluding any of the big players from the table and always trying to achieve a modus vivendi even with diametrically opposing powers. Erdogan seems to be using the Patriot and S-400 cards interchangeably, in order to create the appropriate leverage towards US and Russia. The way the story has been presented by Bloomberg and reproduced by the Turkish state-run News Agency, Anadolu, indicates that Turkey is probably trying to create a context of unpredictability about Erdogan’s next moves and hint at the idea of a rapprochement with the US and the Western block. To this end, Akar in his interview has emphasized the idea that an allied country could provide the Patriot batteries to Turkey as a coordinated effort to protect a NATO member from an external threat.
The T‐LORAMIDS Program: a Long, Complex Story
Still the question must arise: how exactly did Turkey get itself in this current situation? The T-LORAMIDS or (Long-Range Air-and Missile-Defense System) program has been a key aspect of the Turkish strategic defense. Ankara has shifted sides several times since the program was launched. Chinese HQ‐9 SAM have been initially selected back in 2013, considering the efficiency, the cost and the engagement of the Turkish industry in the production and other phases of the project, a critical factor for Ankara. The plan had to be cancelled, though, in 2015, with official sources quoting technical difficulties; the US and European reaction to Turkey deploying such a sophisticated strategic weapon from China should be actually considered as the primary reason.
Another T-LORAMIDS program started in 2016 with the US Raytheon Patriot and Russian Almaz-Antey S-400, being among the bidders. A Turkey-Russia agreement had been signed by mid-2017, for the deployment of four S-400 batteries within the Turkish territory. This deal has provoked most of the NATO allies, and especially the US, who have vigorously opposed this deal since its very beginning. Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has confirmed that since May, 2019 Turkish personnel has been sent to Russia to receive training on the new missile system. Additionally, Erdogan stated in May, 2019 that a joint project for procurement and production of the enhanced S-500 system, was among the top priorities for Ankara and Moscow. The first two S-400 batteries have been delivered to Turkey in July and September 2019 respectively. According to Akar, the weapon will be fully operational by April 2020.
The Patriot system has been offered twice to Turkey, in the context of the T-LORAMIDS programme in 2013 and in 2017 respectively; both times it has been rejected. However, Ankara has been trying to keep open channels with Raytheon and the US defense industry and has suggested in several occasions that a revised offer regarding the Patriot system would be considered.
Talks about the potential sale to Turkey of 20 M903 Launching Stations and four Engagement Control Stations alongside AN/MPQ-65 radar sets have been taking place in December 2018 within the US State Department; however, such a deal did not move forward, due to the acquisition of the S-400 system from Russia. Since then, President Erdogan has repeated his intention to discuss an updated Patriot deal on February and November, 2019, but so far, the US side has made clear that the concurrent use of the S-400 and specific NATO strategic weapons is out of the question; therefore the planned S-400 deployment in April should be a no-go for any Turkish proposals from a US perspective.
Conclusion: Erdogan’s Gambit
The latest developments indicate that Turkey is not looking at these missile systems simply as a strategic weapon that could significantly affect the defense capabilities of the country; instead, Erdogan is using the attention drawn and the debate over these weapons as a geopolitical tool, a means to balance between the East and the West and to put pressure on each side according to the Turkish strategic interests. At this point, it would be interesting to wait for the US reaction, even though Ankara should not anticipate a very accommodating stance from Washington. The current circumstances seem far from ideal for the Turkish side, as the Turkish President has probably already played most of his cards and there is no room for further maneuvers in this power struggle with Russia.