Will Turkey choose S-400s or lose Idlib?

Published 24.05.2019 20:27
Updated 27.05.2019 18:21

Turkey's advantageous position in Syria has changed into a predicament with every step taken in the S-400 and Idlib issues, while Ankara faces pressure from both Washington and Moscow

On March 11 of this year, I penned a column entitled "The more the U.S. threatens, the more Erdoğan pushes back" for Daily Sabah. The article was about the increasing rift between Ankara and Washington concerning Russia's sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air defense systems which Turkey purchased.

Ankara has been working on producing its own high-tech military systems for a while. In 2013, the domestic development and production of long-range air and missile defense systems became a priority for the country and the Turkish Ministry of Defense announced a tender for the Turkish Long Range Air and Missile Defense Systems (T-LORAMIDS) program. Turkey has had three major conditions: co-production, technology transfer and partial on-time delivery. American defense companies Raytheon and Lockheed Martin did not include technology transfer or co-production in their offer and also asked for at least a four times larger payment than what Turkish financial conditions had stated. In July 2017, Turkey, France and Italy signed a letter of intent to cooperate in a joint defense project including air and missile defense systems. In December 2017, Turkey also signed a contract with Russia for the S-400 missile systems to warrant its midterm needs.

Since then, Washington has been pressuring and threatening Turkey with sanctions, political and economic consequences and other issues such as removal from the F-35 fighter jet program, although Turkey has fulfilled all its responsibilities in the F-35 project. NATO, the intergovernmental military alliance both the U.S. and Turkey are members of, has repeatedly said that Turkey's procurement of the S-400 system is a "national decision."

However, this decision has led to excessively strained ties with Washington, which earlier last month suspended the delivery of parts and services necessary for Turkey's receipt of the F-35 fighter jets. In the meantime, U.S. Congress legislated a bill that imposed sanctions on countries and companies purchasing military equipment from Russia. Even though some NATO members said that the S-400 systems would not be interoperable with NATO's defense architecture; Turkey has not made an official statement about its intention of using the S-400 defense systems integrated with or without NATO defense systems so far.

Are the US threats just about money?

According to the latest news, Turkey now has a little more than two weeks to decide whether to complete a deal with Raytheon for the Patriot systems, which came on the table again in 2017, which Turkey hasn't refused yet, or risk severe penalties such as the imposition of U.S. sanctions if Ankara goes through with an agreement to buy the S-400 system from Russia. The reports say Turkey must cancel the deal with Russia by the end of the first week of June and buy Raytheon's U.S.-made Patriot missile defense system instead – or they will be removed from Lockheed Martin's F-35 program, which includes 100 of the promised F-35 jets.

Well, we know U.S. President Donald Trump – all he cares about is making money. If we recall the White House statement on Nov. 20, 2018, regarding the horrific murder of the veteran Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, it would be clearer. Trump openly said that the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia's money, reminding us that, "The kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the U.S.," $110 billion of which is "to be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors."

While Trump cares about money, Congress' attitude is a bit more political as far as we see from Turkey. As I wrote on the column mentioned above: "These threats are not only about the S-400 purchase from Russia by Turkey. Some in the U.S. want to squeeze Turkey in between two superpowers, Moscow and Washington." I also added, "If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan kneels down in front of Washington, he will not be a man of his word in the eyes of Vladimir Putin," and "also jeopardizes the improving situation in Syria." If we look at Idlib, the last remaining stronghold of the opposition, what I meant in March can be clearly understood.

The prevailing Turkish vision in Syria

As we remember, millions of civilians in Idlib, Syria were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief on Sept. 17, 2018, after months of escalating tensions, as President Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to establish a demilitarized zone around Idlib province, where fears had been running high of a major offensive by Syrian regime forces. Syrian butcher Bashar Assad has been eyeing Idlib to declare his victory; however, the Idlib agreement has marked a major diplomatic victory for Erdoğan, who has not stopped looking for ways to prevent a major attack in Idlib, and has meant a significant step for Russia's Putin, who has been a long-time supporter of the Bashar Assad regime and a key figure that can prevent more bloodshed in Syria.

"The opposition will continue to remain in the areas where they are. In return, we will ensure that the radical groups, which we will determine with Russia, will not operate in the area under discussion," President Erdoğan said at a press conference with Putin after the deal.

"Russia will surely take necessary precautions to ensure the Idlib de-escalation zone is not attacked. Together we will ensure the detection and the prevention of provocation by third parties and violations of the agreement," he added.

Just like Iran, Damascus and some in Russia said Turkey had no right to create a "safe zone" inside Syria unless it sought and received the consent of Bashar Assad. However, Putin didn't utter the name of Assad either in Sochi or during the next press conference in Moscow. He preferred to use words such as "Syrian Republic" or "Syria" instead of "Assad." Russia and Iran are still known as the guardians of the Assad regime. However, there were many conflicts of interests between Iran and Russia on the ground until recently. The cases of Russia acting out of sync with Assad's Iran-backed allies in the war were increasing day by day, and speculations that Russia would force Iran out of Syria has been growing.

Changing realities and the struggle for balance

But today, the situation in Idlib is now escalating, and Russian airstrikes have been a part of the attacks alongside Syrian regime forces' artillery strikes and Iran's drones. The last onslaught began at the end of April, and according to reports, in the last three weeks, 230 civilians were killed, 730 were wounded and some 300,000 civilians were displaced. Those who live in northwestern Hama and southern Idlib have been changing their places and coming north, close to the Turkish-Syria border. In addition, around 20 medical facilities were severely hit, 50 of them have been closed. Pro-Syrian forces claim that the hospitals are used as gathering places for "terrorists," but there is no credible evidence so far for that. So, what has changed the Kremlin's position once again? Has Putin also changed his mind, too?

For Iran, of course, Assad himself should be the first person addressed by Ankara. The recent reports claim that the Syrian regime also expects Turkey to interact directly with them. In mid-April, during Washington's increased pressure on Iran day by day, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid an official visit to Turkey and told reporters that he "had a long interview with Bashar Assad" before he came to Ankara. "I will be giving details of these discussions to Mr. Erdoğan," he added before Erdoğan received Zarif at the presidential complex where they had a closed-door meeting lasting over an hour. As Zarif's visit was just before the recent assaults, we can now figure out what kind of offer Zarif brought from Assad to Erdoğan along with Iran's needs from Turkey after the U.S.' increasing oil sanctions.

Turkish officials have been talking to their Russian counterparts over Idlib, but it is obvious that the Syrian regime and Iran expect Turkey to interact directly with them. According to several sources, the Kremlin also wants a deal between Turkey and the Syrian regime at a political level, but such contact cannot happen in the eyes of Ankara; as for Ankara, Assad, who eagerly and intentionally killed his own people, is still a butcher and cannot be trusted. As a matter of fact, considering Assad's war crimes in Syria, Turkey is absolutely right to harbor concerns about him and his regime. Since the PKK's Syrian offshoot panicked after Trump's withdrawal decision, the Assad regime and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have been trying to find common ground to resume their close relations. Assad had been angry with the PYD since 2013, as he wanted to use the terror organization as a tool against Turkey; however, when the U.S. decided to land on the ground in Syria, the PYD chose to become "the boots on the ground" for the U.S.

After the recent assaults, Ankara is saying that Damascus is looking for ways to "sabotage" Turkey's relations with Russia. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told Russia on May 10 to take "effective measures" to prevent regime operations in Idlib. Also, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 13. Erdoğan said Assad's attack on the de-escalation zone guaranteed by Moscow and Ankara had reached an "alarming dimension" that cannot be justified with claims of fighting terrorism.

Between a rock and a hard place

From this point of view, Russia's changing position cannot be just about "fighting terrorism" as Russia and Turkey had maintained the Sochi deal successfully, so far. Is it about the talks between Ankara and Washington and the fate of the area east of the Euphrates, while it is still one of the three guarantor countries of the de-escalation zones and a partner of the Astana process? Since the beginning of 2019, Turkey has been in talks with the U.S. to establish a safe zone east of the Euphrates and with Russia over maintaining the demilitarized zone in northwestern Syria. Turkey has been insisting that this safe zone will be under the control of the Turkish military and Turkey-backed groups. That could be a trigger for Damascus and Tehran, but it is not on the top of the list for Moscow.

Then, there is only one reason left. As I mentioned in my column on March 11, some in the U.S. want to squeeze Turkey between two superpowers, Moscow and Washington, over its purchase of the S-400 defense systems. As I said then, if Ankara gives in to Washington, it would "jeopardize the improving situation in Syria." And Moscow is now pushing Turkey from one side and showing how things can go backward in Idlib if it steps back from the S-400 purchase. Washington, on the other hand, is making statements about its concerns over the growing escalation in Idlib and talks about the risks of new chemical attacks. Those words are not about the lives of civilians. The U.S. is just provoking Moscow and making the Russians increase their attacks alongside Assad; that is Washington pushing Turkey from the other side to not buy the S-400s.

The upcoming days will show us how Turkey will play its cards and get out of this tight spot.

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