There are serious tensions between Turkey and the United States over the former's decision to purchase the S-400 missile defense system. In recent years, Turkey entered negotiations with multiple countries, including the United States, to reinforce its air defenses. The Turkish government's goal was to supply a low-cost air defense system under a joint production and technology transfer plan. When the United States and the rest of Turkey's NATO allies failed to meet Ankara's needs for nine years, the Turks finally reached an agreement with Russia for the S-400's delivery by July 2019.
As mentioned above, the S-400 deal created problems between Ankara and Washington. The United States opposes the Turkish-Russian agreement, voicing concern that installing the Russian missile defense system on Turkish soil could reveal secrets about F-35 fighter jets. The Turkish counterargument is that Israel should stop flying its F-35 jets over Syria, where there are active S-400 systems, if the American concern is warranted. U.S. officials, Turkish sources say, have yet to explain themselves – which begs the question whether Washington objects to the S-400 deal on other grounds. But there are a few points worth considering first.
The U.S. threatens to impose economic sanctions on Turkey if it goes through with the S-400 agreement. The Turkish government's offer to form a joint commission on the matter remains unanswered. There is talk that the U.S. Congress will slap on Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions as soon as Russia delivers the missile defense system to Turkey. In other words, Washington threatens to bring its relations with Ankara to the point of collapse.
There are two additional issues that strain Turkey-U.S. relations. First, Turkey's exemption from the Iran sanctions is about to expire. If nothing changes, the country will stop importing Iranian oil on May 2. The Trump administration tells Iran's customers, including Turkey, to start buying from Saudi Arabia. Yet Riyadh's oil comes with a bigger price tag.
The second issue relates to the Syrian civil war and a proposed safe zone across Turkey's southern border. Turkish and U.S. officials continue talking, with sources claiming that Washington could make Turkey a new offer soon. Yet the pending American offer remains unlikely to meet the Turkish demand for total control over the proposed safe zone. The United States wants the international coalition to collectively enforce the safe zone, yet many members of the European Union have already rejected that plan. As such, it is still unclear what the Americans will offer Turkey.
Let us now turn back to the S-400 deal. Could the Turkish and American presidents make a move to repair the relationship? Sources indicate that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will speak with U.S. President Donald Trump soon to discuss, among other issues, Turkey's plan to purchase the Russian missile defense system. Erdoğan will allegedly explain why his country needs the S-400 to his American counterpart. The leaders will also talk about Syria and economic cooperation. The obvious question is whether Erdoğan and Trump will find a middle ground on the Russian missile defense system.
If the United States was directly involved in the S-400 agreement, the two leaders may have found a compromise – as they did in the past. Let us recall that Trump decided to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and shook hands with Erdoğan on a safe zone. Over the following weeks, Washington changed its mind and brought the withdrawal to a grinding halt. There are problems surrounding the proposed safe zone as well.
The U.S. bureaucracy is highly likely to sabotage any agreement between Erdoğan and Trump on the S-400 missile defense system – as it blocked Trump's efforts to withdraw from Syria and set up a safe zone. After all, U.S. officials no longer decide America's foreign policy. According to Serdar Turgut, a Washington-based Turkish journalist, Israel exerts unprecedented influence over U.S. decision-makers. In other words, Tel Aviv's regional ambitions undermine U.S. foreign policy and poison Washington's relationship with Ankara. Under the circumstances, it is highly unlikely for Turkey and the United States to find a middle ground.
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