S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems roll through Red Square in Moscow as Russia celebrated the 74th anniversary of the World War II victory over Germany. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey Under Pressure over Russian Missile System

Increased heat by U.S. to cancel S-400 deal could threaten Turkish economy, relations with Americans

As a Russian-led offensive on a rebel-held region in northwestern Syria killed 25 people on Monday, analysts told The Media Line that the onslaught was partly meant to pressure Turkey not to give in to U.S. demands to abandon a deal to purchase a Russian-made missile defense system.

The U.S. has said it is very concerned over Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system and is placing its own pressure on Ankara to cancel the purchase.

Timothy Ash, a London-based economist focusing on Russia and Turkey, said Moscow was concerned that Turkey might not go through with the deal because of American pressure and wanted to ensure the agreement was maintained in order to help push the country farther away from the West.

“Turkey is between a rock and a hard place, between the Americans and the Russians, and Putin is playing that,” said Ash.

Over 1,500 people have been killed since the most recent round of fighting began six weeks ago, with more than half of them being civilians, according to the Reuters news agency.

The Russian missile deal is considered problematic because NATO member states’ military systems must be integrable and a missile purchase made outside the military alliance would not be. Turkey is a member of NATO, but Russia is not.

The US and other western NATO members also fear that allowing a NATO country to use Russian-made equipment will give Moscow access to highly sensitive information about U.S. military technology.

Turkey said on Monday that the U.S. had so far not accepted a suggestion to create a joint working group to discuss the S-400 purchase.

If the Russian offensive in Syria turns into a full military onslaught to take back control of opposition-controlled parts of the North, millions of refugees as well as some jihadists are expected to flood into Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced domestic pressure over the more than 3 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey because of the perceived stress they place on public services and increased competition for jobs and housing.

With Moscow supporting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, it is largely up to Russia to decide whether or not his forces try to regain control of the opposition-held areas in the North.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Media Line that Putin holds a lot of leverage over Turkey and wants to use the S-400 deal to hurt the latter’s relations with its allies.

“Putin doesn’t want to let Erdogan off the hook…. It’s about the rupture within NATO that it would [cause],” Cagaptay noted.

In addition to the northern Syrian region of Idlib, Turkey is also concerned about U.S.-backed forces in the region that Ankara says are allied with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant group demanding greater Kurdish autonomy in southern Turkey along the border with northern Iraq.

“Turkey is in a difficult neighborhood,” said the London-based Ash. “I think it’s fair that Turkey wants a missile defense system.”

However, he added that if Turkey goes ahead with the purchase, it could motivate other NATO member states to buy major military equipment from outside the alliance.

The U.S. offered to sell its own Patriot missile defense system to Turkey, but Ankara has so far rejected the deal, saying it is not as good as the one offered by Russia.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. side has not given us an offer as good as the S-400s,” Erdogan said earlier this month.

In a letter sent last week to the Turkish government, the U.S. Defense Department warned that Turkey would be excluded from America’s F-35 fighter jet program if it went ahead with the Russian missile defense system purchase.

This was the most concrete move by Washington to convince Ankara that going ahead with the S-400 missile purchase would lead to such a result, according to Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who previously dealt with Turkish affairs at the U.S. State Department.

However, with U.S. President Donald Trump and various members of his administration having sent mixed signals in the past, Turkey might not be convinced to take the statement seriously, he said.

“Until the Turks hear this from the White House, they will continue to cling to their belief that President Trump will overrule his administration and spare Turkey from this dilemma by approving of Ankara’s deployment of the Russian system,” Makovsky wrote in an email to The Media Line.

“To remove any doubt about U.S. intentions, the White House – and preferably President Trump personally – must take full and public ownership of the policy enunciated in the acting defense secretary’s letter,” Makovsky added, referring to Patrick Shanahan, the interim head of the Pentagon.

The timing is especially sensitive for Erdogan as his party faces a repeat of the Istanbul mayoral race, which was won by the opposition’s candidate, dealing the president and his ally, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, an embarrassing defeat. The March elections were cancelled by the Turkish Supreme Election Council and new elections are scheduled to be held on June 23.

Aside from losing out on the U.S. fighter jets, sanctions from Washington could also be imposed, which proved detrimental last summer after a major diplomatic row over an imprisoned U.S. pastor.

After a Turkish court failed to let American Andrew Brunson leave the country, the U.S. imposed limited sanctions and increased tariffs on metal imports. With foreign investors rattled, the Turkish currency went into a free fall.

The pastor was released soon afterwards, but it had been made known what could happen if relations with the world’s superpower and largest economy deteriorated.

By the end of 2018, Turkey entered a recession and about 30 percent of the Turkish lira’s value was wiped out.

“The economy will slow and go back into recession [if sanctions are imposed]. That’s going to be a big loss of economic activity,” Ash said.

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