Russian missiles start arriving in Turkey, amid disjointed US response

Turkey’s Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, announced on Friday that Russia had begun delivery of the S-400, with the first shipment of parts arriving at an air base near Ankara.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - Turkey’s Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, announced on Friday that Russia had begun delivery of the S-400, with the first shipment of parts arriving at an air base near Ankara.

US officials had long warned Turkey against taking possession of the advanced Russian air defense system. Indeed, as recently as Tuesday, State Department Spokesperson, Morgan Ortagus, replying to a question from Kurdistan 24, affirmed that Turkey “will face real and negative consequences, if they accept the S-400.”

Yet Ankara’s announcement that delivery of the S-400 had actually begun seemed to catch the administration at least somewhat unawares. The Pentagon twice announced on Friday that it would brief the press on the issue, only to twice cancel the event.

“We are aware of reports that Turkey has taken delivery of the S-400,” a senior administration official told Kurdistan 24. “As the President said at the G20 ahead of meeting with Erdogan, ‘It's a problem, there’s no question about it.’”

However, the State Department and Pentagon declined to provide comment on the matter to Kurdistan 24—or any other media outlet, including The Wall Street Journal.

But Congress felt no inhibition. It expressed strong disapproval. The Republican and Democratic leadership of the Senate Armed Services and Senate Foreign Relations Committees issued a joint statement.

“On a strong bipartisan basis, Congress has made it clear that there must be consequences for President Erdogan’s misguided S-400 acquisition, a troubling signal of strategic alignment with Putin’s Russia and a threat to the F-35 program,” Senators Jim Inhofe (R, Oklahoma), Jack Reed (D, Rhode Island), Jim Risch (R, Idaho), and Bob Menendez (D, New Jersey) all affirmed.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D, New York) and Michael McCaul (R, Texas), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a similar statement.

“We have warned Turkey and President Erdogan time and time again that taking delivery of the Russian S-400” would have “serious consequences for the US-Turkey relationship, including Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program,” the two senior Congressmen stated, adding they had also warned that obtaining the missile system “would trigger sanctions.”

When Trump and Erdogan met on June 29 in Japan, Trump seemed sympathetic to Turkey, blaming the Obama administration for being unwilling to sell Turkey the Patriot missile system.

But Trump, at least publicly, never said there would not be consequences. Rather, he described the situation as a “mess,” and, as noted above, “a problem.”

Turkish officials, who portray Trump as being at odds with the Pentagon, may well be misrepresenting his position. Nonetheless, it is the second time that a crisis of sorts has followed talks between Trump and Erdogan.

Last December, in a phone conversation, Erdogan offered to replace US troops in Syria with Turkish forces, and Trump initially accepted the offer. However, he faced strong opposition from his own advisors, Congress, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he was obliged to backtrack, at least in part. 

Read More: Trump decision to withdraw from Syria opposed by senior advisors 

US Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper did speak with his Turkish counterpart on Friday. Initially, Esper said more information would follow their conversation, but the Pentagon provided none. According to Turkey’s account of their discussion, Akar asked for a US delegation to be sent urgently to Turkey for further discussions, ABC News reported.

“I think the US government came quite late to the realization that Erdogan was serious about acquiring the S-400,” Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and now a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Kurdistan 24.

“Even then, Washington sent conflicting signals, giving Ankara the impression that it could get away without any serious pushback,” Erdemir continued, as he warned that Russia was pulling Turkey “systematically into its sphere of influence.”

It has become commonplace for Americans who deal with national security matters to express concern about Russia’s influence campaigns. Often cited is Moscow’s manipulation of social media or, even something far more dramatic, like the covert release of hacked e-mails to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections.

Yet there are many ways to manipulate decision-makers, and “Putin is a master of the craft,” a former US intelligence official advised Kurdistan 24.

“To the minds of Pentagon strategists, the S-400 deal is part of [Putin’s] plan to divide NATO,” The New York Times reported. “American officials are clearly uneasy when asked about the future of the alliance, or even how Turkey could remain an active member of NATO while using Russian-made air defenses.”