Does the US have a coherent strategy toward Turkey?

Two major issues divide the US and Turkey. One is the future of northeast Syria. The other is Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s advanced air-defense system, the S-400.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) – Two major issues divide the US and Turkey. One is the future of northeast Syria. The other is Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s advanced air-defense system, the S-400.

Strategy, according to the dictionary definition, is akin to a master plan or grand design. It integrates all components into a coherent whole.

One historic example of a country lacking such a strategy is Germany before World War I. Germany’s army and navy were autonomous entities. The army prepared for war against France and Russia, the navy prepared for war against Great Britain.

The result was to cause Britain to abandon its historic neutrality and align with France and Russia. When World War I broke out, the ultimate result was Germany’s defeat.

Does the US have a coherent strategy toward Turkey? Or are two elements in conflict, like the German army and the German navy?

S-400 Dispute

The biggest issue for the US in regard to Turkey is the S-400. If Ankara acquires the missile system, the US will not deliver to Turkey the F-35, its most advanced fighter jet.

US officials have repeatedly warned Ankara about this problem, despite the fact that Turkey has already invested over one billion dollars in the program. Indeed, early last month, the Pentagon suspended delivery of F-35-related equipment to Turkey.

Two weeks later, a high-level delegation visited Washington, including Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, also the son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s Spokesman and Special Adviser; and Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar.

READ MORE: US-Turkish standoff continues over S-400 as Turkish delegation leaves Washington

“Despite a steady stream of high-level Turkish officials visiting Washington in recent days,” The Washington Post reported last week, “there has been no apparent progress in resolving US demands that Turkey cancel its order” for the S-400.

That still seems to be the case, despite a telephone conversation between Donald Trump and Erdogan on Monday, in which they discussed the S-400, among other issues.

Asked about that discussion, a senior administration official told Reuters, “We have been clear and consistent in emphasizing our grave concerns on the S-400 acquisition with representatives of the Turkish government on numerous occasions and at the highest levels.”

Indeed, on Tuesday, after speaking with Trump, Erdogan seemed to signal his intent to proceed with the Russian arms deal, affirming that the F-35 program was “bound to collapse” without Turkey’s participation.

The Turkish press can be astonishingly anti-American. As a columnist for Yeni Safak, known for its close ties to Erdogan, wrote on Wednesday, “The bandit state of America is trying to get Turkey to withdraw from its S-400 deal” through “threats and blackmail.”

 “The insolent David Satterfield, the new US ambassador to Ankara, and many Evangelist senators, who wrote a joint article for The New York Times, joined in the blackmail choir,” it stated, referring to an opinion piece, written by the top Republican and Democratic senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and now Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Kurdistan 24, “The anti-American incitement in Turkey’s government-mouthpiece media might succeed in mobilizing Erdogan’s core supporters at home, but will not be taken seriously in any of the NATO member states.”

“The basic factor that determines Ankara’s course is the personal political future of Erdogan," a Turkish official told Al-Monitor. “Putin is the person who best understands Erdogan,” he continued. “The personal relationship between Putin and Erdogan is one of the most basic parameters of the S-400 crisis. I think Washington doesn’t pay too much attention to this parameter.”

What Happens if Turkey Acquires the S-400?

If Turkey takes possession of the S-400, it means, firstly, that it will be expelled from the F-35 program and forfeit the money it has invested in the program.

Turkey will also be subject to CAATSA sanctions: Combatting America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which calls for, among other things, imposing punitive sanctions on countries buying arms from Russia.

CAATSA could well cost Turkey up to $10 billion, according to a report by Merve Tahiroglu, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Greg Everett.

The S-400 could even cost Ankara its membership in NATO. “Turkey must choose,” Vice President Mike Pence warned, as he spoke on the sidelines of a NATO Foreign Minister’s Conference, marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the alliance.

“Does [Turkey] want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history, or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?” Pence asked.

Amb. James Jeffrey, Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and Special Representative for Syria Engagement, is in Ankara for discussions about Syria before heading to Geneva for further meetings on Syria.

The State Department Spokesperson explained that Jeffrey leads a delegation “having discussions on Syria with senior Turkish officials” that “include addressing Turkey’s legitimate security concerns, promoting stability and security in northern Syria,” and “advancing issues of mutual interest,” including the UN Security Council Resolution on Syria (2254.)

It does not appear from that statement that Jeffrey’s agenda in Ankara includes the S-400. The Turkish media give the same impression. It is reporting extensively on the “safe zone” that Turkey has proposed for northern Syria, but does not even mention the S-400.

Thus, it seems that one group of US officials are dealing with the S-400, while Jeffrey and his delegation are dealing with other issues.

What About the Kurds?

How is Jeffrey to reconcile Turkey’s position on Syria with that of the Kurds, who have led the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s principal partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria?

Turkey considers the SDF’s Kurdish component, the YPG (People’s Protection Units), as terrorists and has called for a “safe zone” 20 miles deep stretching from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border. Turkey would play a key role in policing that zone.

The SDF Commander, Mazlum Kobane, has reportedly accepted a much smaller zone: three miles wide, according to Amberin Zaman, writing in Al-Monitor. “It remains unclear,” however, as she noted, “how Jeffrey hopes to bridge differences, when both sides are in no mood to compromise.”

Since the Kurds are the weaker party, it may seem easier for the US to twist their arm rather than push Turkey toward an outcome it strongly opposes. But if crises in relations between the US and Turkey and Turkey and NATO are looming, because of the S-400, would it even be wise for the US to favor Turkey over Syria’s Kurds?

In 2017, the issue of Iraq was left to lower-ranking officials who lacked a broader perspective. Fixed on the unity of Iraq and securing the election of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, they took a strong public stance against the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum.

Their out-sized opposition was criticized by experienced figures, like Ryan Crocker, who served as ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, and Zalmay Khalilzad, who held the same positions.

READ MORE: Criticism Grows of US opposition to Kurdistan Referendum

Indeed, writing in The Washington Post, Khalilzad warned, that the US position would “only serve to destabilize Kurdistan while emboldening Baghdad and the Iranian-controlled militias.”

That is just what followed. The head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Qasim Soleimani, in coordination with Baghdad, engineered an assault on the Peshmerga.

This occurred at the same time the US was preparing measures against Iran. The Treasury Department had just, days before, designated the IRGC for terrorism.

The US compounded the problem as it turned a blind eye to the assault. The effect was to strengthen the role of Iran and its proxies in Iraq.

Is the US making a similar mistake in Syria, with regard to Turkey? One group of people are dealing with the security zone in northern Syria and may well be accommodating Turkey, to the disadvantage of America’s Kurdish allies.

Another group of people are dealing with the S-400. That dispute could culminate in a fundamental rupture in the US-Turkish relationship, as Ankara turns increasingly to Moscow.

Unless the diplomacy regarding northeast Syria and that involving the S-400 is properly integrated, the US could, again, be shooting itself in the foot, by accommodating a regime it still considers an ally, but which, in reality, has developed substantial differences with Washington.

Editing by Nadia Riva