The Tale of Turkey and the Patriots
Watching the current trajectory of the U.S.-Turkish relationship is like witnessing two locomotives hurtling towards one another head-on. It’s a terrifying sight. As both capitals struggle to pull the brake, it’s important to understand the backstory about one issue caught up in the impending train wreck: the long-suffering Patriot air and missile defense deal. This is a tale less about the security and economic benefits of the sale and more about a time of intense geopolitics, bilateral policy fights, and growing mistrust between two close NATO allies. As two senior Defense officials who helped manage the U.S.-Turkish defense relationship from 2009 through 2018, we feel it important to give our view on how the United States got to this low point not only in the Patriot sale, but also in this important relationship.
Providing Turkey with air and missile defenses has been an important mission especially since the Gulf War when Turkey asked NATO for the first time to send air defenses to protect them from possible retaliatory SCUD missile strikes from Saddam Hussein. The United States, Germany, and the Netherlands heeded the call, each deploying Patriot missile systems under a NATO flag. The Patriot air and missile defense system was designed during the Cold War with an air defense mission but earned fame during the Gulf War as a point missile defense system against SCUDs. Afterwards, it became the benchmark to meet for air and missile defense systems. From that point on, Turkey approached NATO for air and missile defense whenever their neighborhood got hot, most recently in 2013 during the fighting in Syria, when NATO allies deployed the Patriot or the Eurosam SAMP/T missile defense systems to the Turkish border.
Long suspicious that NATO did not appreciate Turkey’s vulnerability in such a dangerous neighborhood, Ankara came to view its missile defense requests as a litmus test for how much NATO really cared about Turkey. The alliance usually met Turkish requests, although the deployments were hard to sustain (and expensive to maintain) over a long period of time, given the few NATO members that possessed the appropriate missile defense systems. Nevertheless, the alliance bent over backwards to provide other forms of reassurance — such as Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) flights — if missile defense was not available.
Over time, Turkey began to look for ways to buy its own missile defense system and also to use that procurement to build up its own capacity to manufacture and sell an air and missile defense system. Turkey got serious about acquiring a missile defense system early in the first Obama administration when it opened a competition between the Raytheon Patriot PAC 2 system and systems from Europe, Russia, and even China.
The Turks are known for their hard bargaining. In addition to a low price, Ankara wanted to manufacture parts of the system and acquire the sensitive technology to eventually build their own. Building up the sophistication and capacity of the Turkish defense industry has been an important goal of successive Justice and Development Party governments and various predecessors. In the case of this particular weapons system, there were understandably those in the U.S. government who were eager to protect sensitive U.S. defense technology, even from a NATO ally.
Understanding the importance of the U.S.-Turkish bilateral defense relationship (as well as securing NATO’s southern flank), Raytheon and the Department of Defense put together a series of sales packages between 2009 and 2018 that over time moved closer to meeting the Turkish technology transfer and industrial share demands. As both sides edged closer to a deal in 2013, two things happened: then-Prime Minister (later President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan became more personally involved in the negotiations, and the talks were engulfed in the high-stakes geopolitical competition brought on by the Syrian conflict.
To drive down the price and get a Washington ‘yes’ on technology transfers, Erdogan needed to show the United States that he had options. So in 2013, he played his China card by announcing that Turkey would buy the Chinese FD-2000 system, which also allowed for some Turkish licensed production. NATO and the United States were stunned. Various Western officials objected strenuously, saying that the alliance would never integrate a Chinese air defense system into the NATO air defense net. But by 2014, Ankara came to understand that increasing violence in Syria made Turkey more important in the eyes of its allies and so improved its bargaining position. Ankara dropped the Chinese offer (and so quieted NATO critics) and put out a new request for bids.
In 2015, a new player parachuted into the complex geopolitical battlefield in Syria when Russian troops arrived to shore up their faltering ally, Bashir Assad. The United States and Turkey did not agree on how to address the Russian intervention. Worse, the United States had begun to work with Syrian Kurdish militants along the Syrian-Turkish border to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Of all the indigenous Syrian forces, these Kurds proved to be the most effective fighters against ISIL, but their organizational ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization that had waged a fierce insurgency in Turkey’s southeast, riled Ankara. Soon, the United States and Turkey were fighting over whether U.S. forces were training and arming a terrorist group. Ankara felt that Washington dismissed Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. The U.S.-Turkish relationship was further strained when the United States announced that the Patriots deployed by the United States in 2013 as part of a NATO mission needed to return to Germany for maintenance and training. Even though the United States tried to soften the blow by deploying American F-15s to Turkey for a short time and persuaded two other NATO members to send air and missile defense systems to fill the gap left by the United States, Ankara saw this as further proof that America could not be trusted.
In November 2015, the region seemed moments from an explosion when Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft which had reportedly entered Turkish airspace for a few moments. Had Russia retaliated militarily against NATO ally Turkey, the rest of NATO could have been dragged into war with Russia. The potential of facing NATO forces under Article 5 likely deterred Russia from a direct, violent response, although Russian-backed Syrian forces did exchange blows with Turkish-backed forces. Rather than spoil his efforts to split the Turks off from the West and to avoid war, Putin — who had been wooing his fellow autocrat Erdogan for years — limited the Russian reaction to economic sanctions against Turkey.
In July 2016, elements of the Turkish military attempted to overthrow Erdogan when he was away from Ankara. While the putsch attempt was quashed quickly, it was a close call and it gave Erdogan an opening to unleash a mighty purge of the military, civil service, and academia, as well as anyone he thought was supporting his political foe, the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan claimed to be behind the plot. Because the cleric had lived in exile the United States, it did not take long for Erdogan and his officials to intimate that the United States was complicit in the coup as well. That the U.S. government denied Turkey’s extradition request for lack of evidence only reinforced this narrative. Even when relations are stable and positive, it is not hard to drum up anti-American sentiment in Turkey across the political spectrum. And relations were neither stable nor positive. The atmosphere was noxious and the potential Patriot sale was not walled off from the fumes.
After the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan came to believe that his various interests — especially the Kurdish problem in Syria — could be better dealt with if he had Russian support at any future regional conference that addressed the fate of Assad and Syria. Such regional conferences had already started in Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2017 involving Russia, Turkey, and Iran. For Putin, the coup gave him the opening he needed to befriend the friendless Erdogan and so peel Turkey away from the United States and NATO. In the first hours after the coup attempt, Putin was quick to publicly condemn the coup and express strong support for Erdogan. And Erdogan went so far as to suggest the shoot-down of the Russian aircraft the year before as being the fault of a Gulenist pilot. This combination of factors — Erdogan’s increasing hold on power, dwindling confidence in NATO, and growing mistrust of the United States both for its relations with the Syrian Kurds and its suspected role in the coup — brought relations to the low point where it exists today.
Taking advantage of this new low in U.S.-Turkish relations, Putin saw his chance to use an S-400 sale to Turkey to embarrass the United States and inject chaos into NATO, so in July 2017, he offered the air defense system to Turkey. If Erdogan accepted the Russian offer, he could further solidify his friendship with Putin in order to protect Turkish interests in Syria. More deliciously, he could make the Americans pay a price for supporting the Kurds and refusing to play ball on Gulen. In September 2017, without the usual time-consuming hard bargaining and difficult demands, Erdogan announced he would buy the Russian system.
In the months that followed, the United States warned Turkey that an S-400 purchase jeopardized Turkey’s F-35 purchase due to potential compromise of the highly classified technical characteristics of the advanced F-35 aircraft. Integration of the Russian system into the NATO air defense net was also out of the question. Administration officials, most recently including Mark Esper during his confirmation hearings for secretary of defense — warned that Turkey had to choose between the S-400 and the F-35. They couldn’t have both. The State Department spokesperson also warned of consequences and warnings came from both sides of the aisle in Congress as well, and legislators considered an S-400 purchase as being in contravention of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, that would cause the U.S. president to levy sanctions on Turkey if they bought the S-400. However, based on statements made by Erdogan, he seemed to think that President Donald Trump had bought his narrative of being forced to buy the S-400 due to poor Patriot offers and so would waive both CAATSA and allow the F-35 to be exported to Turkey. Said Erdogan, “Right now, I don’t believe Trump is of the same opinion of those below him and he has said this in front of all the world’s media.” But he was wrong.
The S-400 deliveries to Turkey began on July 12.. Five days after the first Antonov landed in Turkey with S-400 components, the administration reluctantly announced that F-35s would not be arriving in Turkey. The White House statement said, ”Unfortunately, Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible.” However, the president continued to echo Erdogan’s victim narrative. On July 16, Trump mentioned to reporters that withholding the F-35 from Turkey was unfair. Said the president, “So what happens is we have a situation where Turkey is very good with us, very good, and we are now telling Turkey that because you have really been forced to buy another missile system, we’re not going to sell you the F-35 fighter jets.” He continued:
It’s a very tough situation that they’re in, and it’s a very tough situation that we’ve been placed in, the United States. With all of that being said, we’re working through it, but it’s not really fair. Because they bought a Russian system, we’re not allowed to sell them billions of aircraft. It’s not a fair situation.
While the administration has made its decision not to export the F-35 to Turkey, the CAATSA legislation must still be dealt with. Congress has made clear on a bipartisan basis that it expects the president to sanction Turkey for buying Russian equipment. While a presidential waiver is possible, it is not likely. The administration has not yet revealed its plans on how it will deal with CAATSA, further dragging out the S-400 drama.
The U.S.-Turkish trains have not collided yet, but as both sides try to figure a way out of the mess, they should be clear about each arrived here. While arms sales are never easy, the Patriot deal with Turkey was an unhappy victim of bigger geopolitical considerations by Russia and Turkey. Is there a way out? Given the personal engagement of three leaders unusually sensitive to their reputations— Erdogan, Putin, and Trump — compromise will be difficult as one of the three will eventually lose. But if a solution can’t be found, these two trains will likely collide, which will be a tragedy for the United States, Turkey, and NATO, and another easy victory for Putin.
Jim Townsend is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington and was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy from 2009 to 2017.
Rachel Ellehuus is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and was the principal director for European and NATO policy in the Pentagon.
Image: U.S. Army photo by Glenn Fawcett