It sounds like Turkish President (and man who absolutely doesn’t care about your opinion) Recep Tayyip Erdogan was close to pulling off the impossible.
On Wednesday, the White House finally admitted that Turkey cannot participate in the F-35 program if Ankara is determined to install the Russian-made S-400 missile systems that began arriving late last week.
“The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities”, a statement from the White House reads.
Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible. Turkey has been a longstanding and trusted partner and NATO Ally for over 65 years, but accepting the S-400 undermines the commitments all NATO Allies made to each other to move away from Russian systems.
If you sense an overt effort to couch things in friendly terms, that’s because such an effort appears to have been made. Donald Trump has a habit of talking tough towards Erdogan on social media and to the press, but the bluster is nowhere to be found when the two meet face to face, as they did in Osaka late last month. (According to reports, Trump is equally diminutive over the phone.) For lack of a better way to describe the situation, Trump simply folded up at the G20, explaining to the press how the situation is “not Erdogan’s fault”, but rather the fault of previous administrations in the US. (As usual, Trump’s revisionist history isn’t very accurate.)
Following the meeting between the two in Japan, Erdogan said he had received a “personal assurance” from Trump that Turkey wouldn’t be sanctioned, and it became readily apparent over the next week or so that the S-400s were, in fact, going to be delivered.
Through it all, Trump was cordial to the point of being obsequious. “It’s a very tough situation they’re in, and it’s a tough situation that we have been placed in, the United States”, he told reporters on Tuesday.
Seen in that light, the measured tone of the statement from the White House comes as no surprise.
But make no mistake, Erdogan’s decision to move forward with delivery of the S-400s was an egregious slap in the face to Washington. US officials have repeatedly told him that this is one situation where he cannot have his cake and eat it too. But Erdogan being Erdogan, the Turkish president continued to double down, insisting that not only was the S-400 deal “done”, but “Inshallah” he’d get his F-35s to boot.
And while that appears to be out of the question, this isn’t over yet, either. The Pentagon said Wednesday that Turkey’s expulsion from the program would be an “orderly wind-down” that won’t wrap up until March of next year. That means there’s still time for this situation to be resolved, and you can bet Erdogan will be calling Trump on the phone if he hasn’t already. Syria will probably come up.
The Turkish foreign ministry wasn’t amused, but they didn’t sound furious either. “The exclusion of Turkey as one of the main partners of the F-35 program is unjust and the allegation that S-400 system will weaken the F-35s is invalid”, a statement reads. “This one-sided step does not comply with the spirit of the alliance and has no legal basis whatsoever”.
The White House went further with the flattery. “The United States still greatly values our strategic relationship with Turkey. As NATO Allies, our relationship is multi-layered, and not solely focused on the F-35”, the administration said, adding that the two countries’ “military-to-military relationship is strong, and we will continue to cooperate with Turkey extensively, mindful of constraints due to the presence of the S-400 system in Turkey”.
That doesn’t exactly sound like Trump is keen on slapping Ankara with CAATSA sanctions, but it’s not entirely clear how the White House intends to avoid that.
Trump could, if he chose, cut Turkey off from the US financial system, a move that would (frankly), plunge the country into an economic crisis overnight, especially considering how tenuous the situation already is, and the fact that the market is still in a state of shock after Erdogan ousted his central bank chief earlier this month. The memory of last year’s lira collapse is still fresh and there’s been no shortage of tumult in 2019.
As far as what comes next (i.e, whether the White House will move ahead with sanctions), it’s anyone’s guess. This isn’t like the Andrew Brunson soap opera. At the risk of trivializing that episode (which probably wasn’t trivial at all for the pastor), this is a much bigger deal, which means it will take a much braver Trump to act.
Stay tuned. As the US president would say, “the ratings will be tremendous”.