By Dr. Ilan Fuchs
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
I have written articles about developments in Turkey every month in the recent past and this month is no different; Turkey continues to be in the news.
As a result of Turkey’s tests of its Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, the White House has declared sanctions against its NATO ally. But this might not be the end of the situation since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not seem willing to get down from the tree he has climbed into. But he might be willing to engage with the incoming Biden administration without losing face.
Just as a reminder, Erdoğan made it clear that he has no problem working with the U.S. against adversaries like Iran and Russia, but he has also made a move that directly threatens U.S. interests. In November 2019, Turkey tested the S-400 radar detection capability on U.S. F-16 Falcon fighter jets.
On October 16 of this year, the Turkish army conducted exercises with the Russian antiaircraft S-400 system. Turkey has recently gone even further, testing the S-400 Hanud system to detect the movements of U.S. stealth F-35 Lightning II fighter jets and F-22 Raptors. Working with Russia on improving a weapons systems designed to deter U.S. jets went too far and the U.S. had to retaliate.
US Sanctions Against Turkey Are Limited, but Very Specific
The sanctions against Turkey are very specific. According to a December 14 statement from the State Department, “The sanctions include a ban on all U.S. export licenses and authorizations to SSB [Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries] and an asset freeze and visa restrictions on Dr. Ismail Demir, SSB’s president, and other SSB officers.” The wording leaves room for Erdoğan to return to the negotiating table.
The U.S. did not take harsher actions that it could easily have done. These sanctions are scaled and under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the administration has a large array of options to deal with actions that directly and adversely affect U.S. interests.
The short statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explains that “Today’s action sends a clear signal that the United States will fully implement CAATSA Section 231 and will not tolerate significant transactions with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors. I also urge Turkey to resolve the S-400 problem immediately in coordination with the United States. Turkey is a valued Ally and an important regional security partner for the United States, and we seek to continue our decades-long history of productive defense-sector cooperation by removing the obstacle of Turkey’s S-400 possession as soon as possible.”
What did Erdoğan do about Pompeo’s statement? As usual, he shrugged it off. In a speech the following day, he made no attempt to appease the U.S. Also, in a press release the Turkish Foreign Ministry officially rejected the American complaints, calling them “inexplicable.”
“We call on the United States to revise the unjust sanctions (and) to turn back from this grave mistake as soon as possible. Turkey is ready to tackle the issue through dialogue and diplomacy in a manner worthy of the spirit of alliance,” the foreign ministry said.
One of the Biden administration’s first foreign policy tasks “will be to decide on a policy vis-à-vis Turkey.” Now is the time that necessitates a clear message that will force Turkey to decide if it is interested in continuing its special relationship with the U.S. and, by extension, its relationship with its NATO allies.
A Winter in the Turkish-Iranian Relationship?
This is a time for Erdoğan to reevaluate his role in the Middle East. This past week, we saw an interesting development, a flare-up of tensions with Iran.
When the Turkish president visited Baku on December 10 to celebrate Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh this year, with Turkish and Israeli assistance, Erdoğan’s speech included a poem by Azeri poet Bahtiyar Vahabzade. The poem mentions the large ethnic Azeri minority that resides across the border in Iran. “They separated the Aras River and filled it with sand. I will not be separated from you. They have separated us by force,” the poem declares.
His address made Tehran anxious. The Turkic-speaking Azeris are the largest non-Persian minority in Iran and potentially might be a hot bed for separatists. And the Azeri success in Nagorno-Karabakh might give the Azeri minority in Iran ideas.
The Iranian Response to the Azeri Success in Nagorno-Karabakh Was Quick
The Iranian response was quick. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zariff tweeted that Erdogan did not know that what he had recited in Baku refers to the forcible separation of areas north of Aras from the Iranian motherland. “Didn’t he realize that he was undermining the sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan? NO ONE can talk about OUR beloved Azerbaijan,” Zariff stated.
Some pundits are speculating that Erdoğan might be signaling to the incoming Biden administration, and perhaps also to Israel, that he is interested in improving relations. His shrugging off of the new sanctions is part and parcel of the public image he has been cultivating.
But Erdoğan might be interested in making moves that will not require him to lose face nor issue apologies. He is worried about the path the Biden administration might take and this public spat with Iran, a U.S. foe, might signal he is willing to play ball with the new administration. This might also help explain a report in the Hebrew-language Israeli newspaper Maariv that Turkish intelligence officials have discussed returning a Turkish ambassador to Israel after many years.
So where is all this heading? It’s too soon to tell, but this does look like a positive development. So the incoming Biden administration and its nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, might have a good chance to open a dialogue with Turkey and explain to Erdoğan that things need to change and that he needs to finally become a responsible adult.
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