With weeks left in office, the Trump administration is doing a 180-degree turn on a frustrating NATO ally


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President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
  • President Donald Trump has held off on sanction Turkey over its purchase of a Russian air-defense system for three years.

  • Recent reports indicated that the Trump administration is reversing course, as Congress pushes for action, but with tensions in the region rising, Turkey appears unlikely to back down from its purchase.

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump spent much of his time in office nurturing a relationship with Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

That seeming affinity was in contrast to much of the US government’s and Congress’ frustration with Turkish moves that ran counter to US interests in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Now with just weeks left in office, and with lawmakers pressing for action, the Trump administration appears to be acting on one of the most serious disputes, sanctioning Ankara for its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air-defense system, which is seen as a threat to the F-35 fighter-jet program and to NATO operations.

The sanctions would target Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries, a government office that oversees military technology, and its president, Ismail Demir, according to Reuters, which first reported the looming sanctions Thursday.

When asked Thursday about the report, the Treasury Department said it had no comment and the National Security Council referred questions to the State Department, which said it doesn’t “preview sanctions or possible sanctions.”

‘About time’

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The first parts of a Russian S-400 are unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport, known as Akinci Air Base, near Ankara, July 12, 2019. Turkish Military/Turkish Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

Turkey purchased the weapon system in 2017, and in August that year Trump signed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which was meant to deter other countries from buying Russian arms.

The US has kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program over the S-400, but Trump has avoided applying sanctions. However, this year’s annual National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the military, includes a measure requiring them.

Its purchase “constitutes a significant transaction as described” in CAATSA, the bill states, adding that within 30 days of signing, the president “shall impose” sanctions. Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA over unrelated provisions.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, said it was “about time” to act on sanctions and that he was “glad to see Congress do what the administration would not.”

The S-400 is just one issue that has divided Turkey and its allies.

In Syria, Turkey has battled ISIS militants and US-backed fighters, both groups which Ankara considers terrorists. Turkey’s involvement in Libya’s civil war has strained its relations with NATO and other US allies. More recently, Turkey and Greece clashed over a longstanding maritime dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Both are NATO members, and their worsening tensions added to the alliance’s headaches.

Other US actions, like the Navy’s recent decision to make Greece’s Souda Bay the homeport for a expeditionary ship, have also been viewed negatively by Turkey.

Congress is not alone in its frustration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has criticized the S-400 deal, and at a NATO meeting this month, Pompeo reportedly inveighed against Ankara, saying the purchase was “a gift” to Russia and that Turkey’s dispute with Greece was undermining NATO.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu fired back at that meeting, and this week, the presidential spokesman and chief advisor to Erdoğan, Amb. Prof. Ibrahim Kalin, called the S-400 the “result, not the cause of” a number of disagreements.

“Repeated requests” to buy US-made Patriot air-defense systems were “turned down because we were not able to agree on the terms,” Kalin said a German Marshall Fund virtual event. Former US officials have attributed the failure to Erdoğan’s frustration with a 2016 coup attempt as well as differences over the conflict in Syria.

Kalin said the S-400 issue could still be addressed from “a technical-military point of view, but we also know that it’s no longer a technical-military issue.”

“It was conceived by the Congress as a political issue for [Turkey] having close defense-industrial relations with Russia,” Kalin added.

Interests and allies

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Erdogan and Joe Biden, then the US vice president, at the presidential complex in Ankara, August 24, 2016. Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If Trump doesn’t follow through with NDAA-mandated sanctions, President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on January 20, would be obligated to impose them.

Biden “will probably go ahead with sanctions, but how harsh those will be will matter in determining the tone of the relationship,” said Kadir Ustun, executive director of the SETA Foundation in Washington, DC. (SETA has links to Erdoğan’s government, including through Kalin, who is a founder and former director of the think tank.)

Turkey “will not bow to sanctions, and it would be counterproductive,” which Biden is aware of, Ustun said.

Relations with Turkey are likely to be a concern for the Biden administration. Its location as well as its economic and military strength make it a valuable ally, particularly amid ongoing tensions with Russia.

“You have to think cold-hearted, look at the map, look at the geography, what are our interests? And it is definitely in our interest that Turkey remains a member of NATO,” Ben Hodges, former commander of US Army Europe, said in an interview this fall.

Biden’s team are “very knowledgeable” of the issues Ankara cares about and “recognize[s] the critical importance of Turkey” in the region, Ustun said.

“We might see a change of tone overall, but the Biden promise to rebuild relationships with allies, I expect, would extend to Turkey as well,” Ustun said, adding that “if Turkey sees a harder line … it would react in strong terms.”

“The security concerns of the US military or political establishment [over the S-400] can be addressed,” Kalin said this week, “but the longer this takes and the more pressure they put on Turkey … the problem will be much more difficult to resolve.”

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