U.S. President Donald Trump, whose personal relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made for some unexpected policy shifts, will be decisive on U.S. sanctions against Turkey over Ankara’s decision to acquire Russian missile systems, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon correspondent Lara Seligman said in an article published Thursday.
Turkey received the first batch of S-400 systems on Friday, despite Washington’s repeated statements that Ankara risks being ejected from the manufacturing program of F-35 stealth fighter jets and facing U.S. sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
During a meeting with Erdoğan last month on the sidelines of G-20 summit in Osaka, Trump said Turkey had been treated unfairly as Ankara had been pushed to purchase Russian systems since the former U.S. administration under President Barack Obama had not allowed Turkey to buy the U.S. made Patriot batteries.
This characterization is not entirely accurate, Seligman said. Turkey has twice passed over the Patriot, first in 2013 when it chose to buy a Chinese system in a deal it later dropped out of, and in 2017, the year it signed the S-400 deal. In both cases, the United States declined Turkey’s condition for the transfer of technology to be added to the deal.
Despite that, Erdoğan said after the meeting with Trump that the U.S. president’s words were an assurance that Washington would not impose sanctions over the S-400s.
“Sanctions will go to the White House, but Trump is the wild card and could sit on implementation,” Aaron Stein, the director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East program, told Foreign Policy.
The CAATSA gives Trump powers to waive the sanctions in certain circumstances. But Trump is unlikely to waive sanctions entirely, Seligman said, citing experts, as there is bipartisan support in U.S. Congress for harsh measures against Turkey.
“The United States has consistently and clearly stated that Turkey will face very real and negative consequences if it proceeds with its S-400 acquisition, including suspension of procurement and industrial participation in the F-35 program and exposure to sanctions,” Seligman quoted a State Department spokesperson as saying.
However, this could change if Turkey threatens to block access to Incirlik, a key air base for U.S. forces fighting in the Middle East that also houses dozens of American nuclear weapons, the correspondent quoted one U.S. administration official as saying.
The airbase in the southern province of Ankara played a key role in air support to U.S.-led coalition forces fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
Turkey’s Habertürk news site reported on Friday that the first S-400 system will be deployed to the border town of Suruç in southeast Turkey, while the Turkish military has stepped up efforts to launch an incursion in northeast Syria. Turkey aims to establish a safe zone on the east of River Euphrates, clearing the area off the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG).
Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), while the Kurdish militia in Syria constituted the backbone of the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS.
“Erdogan believes he can talk Trump out of anything. The rest of the national security apparatus will push for full sanctions,” the same official told Foreign Policy.