By taking delivery of its first S-400 batteries — which led Wednesday to its ejection from the F-35 program — Turkey turned its slow-cooking crisis with its allies into a diplomatic hurricane, leaving behind a trail of questions and challenges, none easy to tackle.
Is Turkey, a NATO ally, veering into Russia’s orbit? Has its ever-precarious alliance with the West met its ultimate demise? The honest answer is, we do not know. Predicting the future is an awfully difficult business. But there are a few things that we do know, and which point to a narrow path that might salvage the alliance. To tread it, we need to understand the true character of the S-400 crisis and avoid some past mistakes.
The West is not wrong to worry that Turkey’s S-400s would allow Russia to learn about the F-35’s unique radar returns or NATO’s encrypted datalinks. Even if Ankara has no such intentions, it can make no assurances against the cyber and intelligence vulnerabilities for which the Russian-made missiles and their operators would be a vector. Turkey is also hosting one of the forward-deployed X-band radars for NATO’s missile defense shield and is home to the Incirlik Air Base, a major staging point for American military operations in the region. Depending on where Ankara deploys its S-400s, one or both could fall in its range, raising a considerable risk should the U.S. and Russia go to war.
Had the problem been merely technical, it could have been solved. Turkey could have shelved its S-400s without ever unpacking them. Or it could have established a data link to verifiably de-activate its radars whenever an F-35 is flying, or made a round-the-clock intelligence-sharing arrangement that would allow U.S. troops to monitor the systems and their operators. All these options were discussed, at least in the public domain, along with even more far-fetched proposals, such as deploying the missiles in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus or gifting them to a close ally like Qatar or Azerbaijan.
The challenge, however, is more political than technical. It is partly a lack of trust, partly a fit of spite. Much of the blame belongs to Turkey, but the United States bears a portion as well.
Turkey scoffs that the backlash it gets for its S-400 deal is just another piece of evidence of its Western allies’ double standards. It had sought to buy the U.S.-made PAC-3 Patriot, but was rebuffed. More than a dozen countries have bought or are buying the PAC-3. If Sweden (facing no obvious missile threat), Romania (carrying a much lesser share of NATO’s burden), and Saudi Arabia (certainly not a paragon of good governance) can have Patriots, why was Turkey given so much trouble? Greece, Turkey’s perennial rival in the Aegean, already has both American-made Patriots and Russian-made S-300s, which it received in the late 1990s over Ankara’s fierce protestations. Why can’t Turkey do what Greece already has done?
These grievances are not baseless, but they are slightly misleading. Turkey demanded several conditions in a Patriot deal, including technology transfer, that were more onerous than almost everyone else. Moreover, the political context is less hospitable: Russia is back on the world stage, flexing its muscles, and under a punitive sanctions regime. It’s a different world we live in.
It may be true that Turkey is getting a rougher deal than others in similar conditions. India, too, is mulling an S-400 purchase and seeking a waiver from Washington, which was happy to bend its stringent non-proliferation laws to curry favor with New Delhi, because there are simply more reasons to placate India, and less antipathy for its leader, Narendra Modi. This is not to say that the S-400 crisis was unavoidable — it wasn’t — or that the U.S. did everything right — it didn’t — but none of this diminishes the gravity of Turkey’s own strategic misconduct. Ankara did things that it knew would have consequences and is now complaining about facing them. As former U.S. attorney Robert Morgenthau once quipped, you are not immune to the law merely because your prosecutor happens not to like you.
Washington’s attitude — call it hubris, hypocrisy, or any other name — might have helped to stoke the fire, but it was Ankara that turned it into an inferno. President Erdogan, who never lacked illiberal tendencies and an Islamist’s antipathy for the West, seized on it to play up Turkey’s longstanding grievance that it is allowed to guard the camp but not allowed inside the tent. In doing so, he broke the levees of Turkey’s deep reservoir of anti-Americanism, recently stoked by the United States’ terribly miscalculated strategy in Syria.
This is the story numbers tell as well. A recent survey by Kadir Has University found that the percentage of those viewing the U.S. as the biggest threat to Turkey grew dramatically since last year, jumping from 60.2 to 81.3 percent. Almost half of the respondents cited Washington’s alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as the primary reason for their distrust of the U.S., and stated that the S-400s should be purchased no matter what. Seeing America with suspicion is one of the only things that unite the supporters and detractors of Erdogan. Washington would be remiss to ignore this reality as it charts its course forward.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced that it would make good on its threat to eject Turkey from the F-35 program over the S-400. So, what happens next? The first order of business is to not do stupid things, which is a bigger achievement than it sounds. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s Wednesday statement was refreshingly conciliatory — “Turkey as a NATO member is much more than S-400” — but it may not echo in other forums like the U.S. Congress, which recently decided to lift the arms embargo on Cyprus at a time of rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Although Erdogan is still formidable, his hold on power is more precarious than ever. His opponents are making unprecedented strides, his former friends are mutinying, and his existing allies are unreliable. There is nothing that would serve him more right now than an excuse to rally ’round the flag.
Second, ignore the Blob. Washington’s experts didn’t get Turkey right then, and they are not getting it right now either. Those who grumble that they are sick of Turkey and that the United States is better off without it were praising Erdogan for doing everything he can to force a more democratic and open country while he was unlawfully purging his secular opponents in show trials that even he ultimately disowned. The same Kadir Has University survey also shows that a strong majority of Turkey — including voters of Erdogan’s party — are still supporting the country’s aspirations to join the European Union and its membership in NATO. The remedy to the West’s fears over Turkey is to pull it towards the West, not to push it further away. Doing so is neither easy nor cost-free, but the alliance is, no matter how imperfect, still better than its absence.
Third, if you want to win against Erdogan, you have to do it in his own game. The most important — and difficult — task is to change perceptions of the Turkish public and win back its support. Negotiate not only with the politicians and behind closed doors, but also with the public and out in the open. Do not let Erdogan shape the narrative all by himself. For every next step in the crisis, explain the stakes, point out the off-ramps, and communicate them clearly and publicly. If Erdogan drives past them, let him own his decision and its consequences.
When possible, confront Ankara’s contradictions. When the Russian option gained prominence, the supposed reason was that Moscow offered better terms on cost, delivery, and technology. The notion has since been debunked: had this been the logic that guided Ankara’s choice, it would have bought the Aster-30, not the S-400. Take Ankara to task for it: from bilateral agreements to defense-industrial cooperation under NATO, it is possible to devise various mutually profitable schemes that, if accepted, would pull the plug on the S-400s, and, if turned down, would put on Ankara the onus of explaining to its people why they are shouldering this burden.
If you are going to get tough, use a scalpel, not an ax. Putting Turkey’s defense companies out of business, straining its already fragile economy in ways that will cost ordinary citizens, or playing with the country’s tripwires in Northern Syria or the Eastern Mediterranean would break things that we may prove unable to fix later. Erdogan’s underbelly is his cronies, whose corruption angers his opponents and supporters alike. Their parochial interests were crucially important in bringing about the S-400 deal. Whatever its cost, let them be the ones paying it — do not bill their greed to the entire country.
And, finally, think about your long game. Erdogan will go, sooner or later, but Turkey will remain. It is time for Turkey’s friends in the West and the West’s friends in Turkey to sit down, have an honest heart-to-heart, and start thinking about how we ensure that the alliance outlasts Erdogan. The battle to save the U.S.-Turkish relationship will not be an easy one, but we have not lost it just yet.