Last tango on S-400 to take place in Japan

NUR ÖZKAN ERBAY
ISTANBUL
Published 31.05.2019 00:06
A new S-400 surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base near Kaliningrad, Russia, March 11, 2019.
A new S-400 surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base near Kaliningrad, Russia, March 11, 2019.

Heated relations between Ankara and Washington caused by the conflict of interests in the S-400 deal are expected to cool down as Erdoğan and Trump prepare to meet during the upcoming G20 summit in Osaka

Even though the S-400 deal has been finalized by Turkey, confusing misperceptions remain, especially in Washington. It will be tough now to reverse this situation in order to reframe relations based on more comprehensive and forthright exchanges. During the G20 summit in Osaka in Japan at the end of June, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump will meet and likely put an end to this running battle. The meeting might also create an opportunity to change the current paradigm between Ankara and Washington, where relations have been fading. Turkey's purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia has become an irresistible topic since last year.

However, coverage has focused on the political angle of the issue instead of asking the questions of why the issue evolved in the first place.

In fact, the aforementioned coverage reflected only the tension which has risen from time to time between Turkey and the U.S., and did not shed light on the background – which would have helped explain Turkey's insistence on acquiring these missile defense systems.

From Turkey, NATO and other member and non-member countries' perspective, this purchase can be summarized as one sovereign country's decision to look out for its own national security. However it was not addressed as such, especially among the military and Congress circles in the U.S. In fact, the whole perception was built upon the creation of "Turkey's dilemma" – where Turkey should put itself in a position to make a choice between its NATO membership and as Russia's military consumer.

Moreover, Turkey's motivation behind the purchase of missile defense systems fitted into this narrowed angle in Washington; reflected at the expense of buying the Russian system. Also, with Trump's new paradigm on foreign policy, it was portrayed as "carrot and stick" diplomacy on whether Turkey purchases the S-400s or not, it must be treated with award or punishment, sanctions or penalty.

However, this time around, it cannot be like that at all. Now there is a chance ahead to reverse this trend in Washington, since Erdoğan and Trump had a phone conversation on Wednesday. Aside from regional, bilateral and trade issues which were discussed, during the talk Erdoğan reiterated his offer to Trump to form a joint working group on the S-400 defense systems. So that was the second time Turkey was offering this and saying it out loud.

Although not knowing Washington's clear response to this offer it is predictable that Erdoğan and Trump vis-a-vis communication during the G20 summit in Japan where both agreed to meet on the side, will be the determinative step to resolve this issue.

US decision to reduce tariffs on Turkish steel positive sign

There is another sign which fortifies U.S.-Turkey rapprochement where Erdoğan welcomed the U.S. decision to eliminate additional tariffs on Turkish steel. Since both countries and their presidents attribute an importance on trade relations where $75 billion was set as a goal.

There is another significant gain for the Trump administration to resolve this issue which can help to abolish Barack Obama administration's debris. In fact, the policies of the previous administration created tremendous damage on U.S.-Turkey relations, most importantly around defense relations.

Turkey's ambition around a missile defense systems was neither the first nor the last. When Turkey wanted to buy the Patriot system from the U.S. in 2009 during Obama's term, the U.S. Congress declined the offer for the sale of the Patriot PAC-3 batteries worth $7.8 billion at the time.

In 2013, Turkey launched talks to purchase a missile defense systems from China, which was did not result in a positive way because of the U.S.

Although the deal carried advantages for Turkey especially with its lower costs, because the Chinese company CPMIEC was on the sanctions list of the U.S., the situation forced Turkey to drop the deal.

Meanwhile, the same year, Turkey made another offer to Washington to purchase the Patriot missile systems but couldn't finalize mutually agreed on terms. The following years, the U.S.-made German and Dutch Patriots were deployed to Turkey's Syrian border cities. However the systems were removed in 2015 due to the assessment that the threat from Syria was over.

By not selling the necessary missile systems to Turkey, its NATO ally, Washington continued to provide arms support to the PKK terrorist group's Syrian affiliate, the People's Protection Units (YPG). This unsustainable policy of Washington finally backpedaled and this time U.S. officials made Turkey an offer for the Patriot defense system at a much lower cost.

In January this year, the U.S. made an official offer to Turkey for a $3.5 billion sale of the Patriot missile and air defense systems during the visit of a U.S. delegation. The provision of credits, technology transfer and joint production were discussed during the visit.

So all of these developments show that the U.S. could not manage relations with a vital ally since the Obama administration. Now, Trump has a chance to reverse this status quo.

In our special interview with Vice President Fuat Oktay for Daily Sabah last week, he emphasized the fact of the paradigm shift Turkey and the U.S. need. He underscored that Turkey has no any intentional conflict or problem with any country including the U.S. "When we talked about relations, it seems like Turkey is the only country which the U.S. has problem with. Whereas they have a problem with almost the whole world and take decisions upon this. They increased the tariffs on Turkish steel and now they marked it down. Today we are talking about the S-400 and tomorrow will be another issue. We have to change the current mindset and habit which supposes that every issue might turn into a crisis between Turkey and U.S." he stated.

Turkey has put its cards on the table from the very beginning and will not reverse this position anytime soon. After all, Washington has to decide on whether it should maintain its current position or make a calculation on losing Turkey. Thus, the Osaka meeting might be an initial but crucial step in these aspects.

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