The U.S.-Turkey relationship has reached a low point and could get worse still. Due to Turkey’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, the United States is rightfully suspending Turkey’s participation in the F-35 airplane and weapons system program. However, with additional sanctions looming, U.S. policymakers must be careful to distinguish between the short-term goal of protecting the F-35 and the strategic objective of restoring a cooperative partnership with Turkey.
Although treaty allies since 1950, the United States and Turkey have experienced significant tensions on foreign policy issues: over Cyprus in 1964 and again in 1974; over Iraq in 2003. The current gulf between Ankara and Washington is, however, unprecedented. But it is neither new nor sudden.
Ankara and Washington have disagreed on almost every significant regional development since 2011: sanctions on Iran; the Libyan intervention; the Syrian civil war; the rise of radical Islamist groups in Syria; the ouster of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi; sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine; and how to fight the Islamic State. It is no coincidence these problems have grown proportionally to the power accumulated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Washington repeatedly papered over these problems, failing to respond to either Turkey’s strategic or authoritarian drift. However, Turkey’s 2017 decision to procure a Russian air defense system was one the United States could not ignore.
At stake for the United States are two related, yet distinct, issues.
First, were Turkey to operate both the Russian S-400 and the American F-35 fighter jet, it could compromise the F-35 and dull America’s military edge if Russia had access to the F-35 system via Turkey.
Second, the S-400 could prove the beginning of the end of Turkey’s military and political alliance with the West, realigning the country toward Moscow and Beijing.
The challenge for U.S. policymakers is to craft a response that both addresses and distinguishes between these concerns.
The most immediate and non-negotiable U.S. interest is to ensure the S-400 and F-35 do not co-exist in Turkey. Thus, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan was right to warn, according to Bloomberg, his Turkish counterpart that acquiring the S-400 will mean halting Turkey’s F-35 program.
Shanahan went further, warning of the possibility of sanctions and a reversal of President Donald Trump’s promise to expand U.S.-Turkish trade.
These sticks are meant not only to dissuade Turkey from the S-400, but also to cajole it back into the NATO fold. It is tempting to think this tough stance might work. After all, last year, U.S. pressure forced Turkey to release U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson. And, right now, Erdogan is uncharacteristically politically vulnerable. In March, his party lost the mayorship of Istanbul and, rather than admit defeat, Erdogan has forced a June re-run, and Turkey’s already teetering economy might be his biggest weakness.
Yet pushing Erdogan now would only hasten, not preclude, a U.S.-Turkish breakup.
Erdogan is ideological, not transactional. He cuts deals to get what he wants, but what he wants is not Turkey first, it’s Turkey transformed. Anti-Americanism is both fundamental to Erdogan’s worldview and, in a starkly polarized Turkey, perhaps the last remaining common cause around which he can rally voters. Seven out of 10 Turks feel threatened by U.S. power, according to a 2017 poll by Pew, higher than any other country and up from 44 percent of Turks in 2013. It is this growing animosity, not the S-400, that poses the greatest long-term threat to the U.S.-Turkish relationship.
Rather than pursuing maximum pressure, a better approach would be to align U.S. interests with those of Turkish society. The first step is to postpone any further showdown until after Istanbul’s June election. The second would be to better distinguish between Turkey’s regime and society.
U.S. policy should constrain Erdogan’s Russian turn while reassuring Turks of the value of an American alliance. This requires refraining from blunt sanctions. Most Turks might not care whether Turkey has the F-35 or S-400, but they will notice — and Erdogan will likely politicize — U.S. sanctions that lead to economic turmoil. Rather than demanding that Turkey buy U.S. weapons, a smarter approach would be to encourage Turks to question why their government wants Russian weapons.
U.S. policymakers must appeal to those Turks who still want their country to keep its rightful place among Western democracies.