Turkish delegation at G20 summit. Will Erdogan have less time for external matters?
As leaders gathered last weekend in Japan for another G20 meeting, rapidly evolving events around the world turned that specific meeting into something more than the usual hugs and handshakes. Some serious issues were on the agenda, including escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran and Saudi Arabia’s continued defiance of international law, both in terms of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its ongoing war in Yemen. For Turkey, the primary focus of course was its deteriorating relations with the U.S. As the deadline for the delivery of the Russian S-400 missile defense system nears, what is at stake and is an accommodation possible?
►Adnan R. Khan: Presidents Erdogan and Trump were scheduled to meet on the sideline of the G20. What were the main issues they discussed?
Ilter Turan: The agenda likely included many things but one of the leading items was no doubt Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia and American plans to impose sanctions on Turkey in case Turkey goes through with the final step of the purchase which is deployment. The Turkish president has suggested that he has not gotten the impression that Mr. Trump is ready to impose sanctions. This may be true but power in the U.S. is somewhat more fragmented than our unitary system of government here and experience has already shown that Mr. Trump is not always able to get his way in developing and implementing policy, although he is the chief executive. Furthermore, there are instances where he may not have the powers to restrict the imposition of sanctions. Therefore, the differences continue to be serious.
The more confusing issue is whether the S-400 presents all the dangers that the Americans have said it poses to the alliance. The main argument is that the radar system will collect information about NATO’s defenses, particularly the F-35 fighter, which will then expose its weaknesses or maybe even expose the secrets of its ability to remain hidden from radars. Now, the interesting point, and one that has been made by the Turkish government is that the S-400 radars have already been exposed to a number of F-35s. For example, Israel already has F-35s flying in the region and there was some recent news that apparently British F-35s flew into Syria and were also exposed to the Russian built radar systems. If there are weaknesses to be discovered, I think, in the end, the F-35s will have to fly in zones where there are S-400 radars. where their weaknesses may be detected. That some S-400 radars might be located in Turkey and would therefore expose the weaknesses of the F-35s to the Russians is indeed less than an persuasive argument. The most serious concern may be that the Americans, and possibly other allies, in terms of their current problematic relations with Turkey, do not have enough confidence in the Turkish ability or determination to keep secrets from the Russians. Furthermore, there may be a different agenda on the part of the U.S. They may want to sell their own Patriot missiles. If Turkey deploys the S-400s, they would not only lose the Turkish market but this might open the way for other countries to purchase S-400s which, most technicians suggest, is a more capable missile system than the American Patriots. What we encounter is a combination of lack of trust and loss of markets.
►Adnan R. Khan: And the financial costs could be even bigger if the the S-400s actually do beat the F-35s stealth capability. Experts say the F-35 is not a particularly good fighter jet beyond its advanced stealth capability. If that capability is compromised, who would want to buy it? And the Americans have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into developing this plane.
Ilter Turan: Right. The fate of the F-35 hinges on whether it’s invisibility is genuine. But as I suggested, it will have to be tested because these planes will fly in areas where S-400 radars are deployed. This is not only Turkey. So if you build this aircraft and say it will not fly in areas where there is an S-400 system, then you have in fact built a useless plane.
►Adnan R. Khan: All of these issues probably came up at the G20 meeting. But we have these two leaders in the U.S. and Turkey with their own unique brand of leadership style. Both have used pretty strong rhetoric when it comes to the S-400 purchase. Do you think there was any room for compromise?
Ilter Turan: The question is whether the statements of the Turkish leader that this is a finished deal was designed to bolster a bargaining position or it was simply a description of the final state of affairs. The only thing I can say is that the position of the Turkish government has now been so deeply established that to use it as a bargaining chip and change would be too costly both in terms of credibility and relations with Russia. So I’m inclined to think that this is a final decision. The question then becomes: Are there ways the Turkish government can persuade the Americans not to apply sanctions to Turkey?
►Adnan R. Khan: But we have a president in the U.S. who seems to love imposing sanctions.
Ilter Turan: The problem is that any careful study of sanctions will illustrate that they may have temporary effects but not necessarily permanent ones. And the danger of employing sanctions is that people will then try to change the framework within which they are effective. We’ve already talked about the fact that many countries are now trying to develop means to bypass the American sanctions against Iran. When you impose sanctions, people will always try to find new mechanisms to, financial or otherwise, to avoid them. So the damage may be temporary.
►Adnan R. Khan: So it does seem like Turkey had some valid arguments it brought to the table at the G20. At the same time, President Erdogan’s political position has been weakened because of the outcome of the municipal elections in Turkey. Do you think this affected his ability to negotiate?
Ilter Turan: He still has four years in office. From that perspective, he retains his critical position in terms of policymaking. But he’s weakened in another way. It may be that his attention will need to be focused more and more on domestic issues and he will have less time for external matters. Now, if that means that the role of the foreign policy establishment will be enhanced, that’s not necessarily a problem. But since our president has been very handson in terms of foreign policy and very personal in his approach, it may become a problem for him to find enough time for external matters.