Donald Trump is a happy president. He must be, since he is a president surrounded only by good friends. There's North Korea's leader, and Russia's president, and Israel's prime minister – all "good guys" he can do business with.
His heart goes out even to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, though Erdogan betrays him behind his back. But just one meeting between the two was enough, at the G20 summit in Osaka, for Trump to say, "I don't think he was treated fairly."
He was referring to the $2.5 billion deal for the S-400 missile air defense systems that Turkey signed with Russia. This deal had been driving NATO leaders and the U.S. Congress crazy and, right up to that meeting with Erdogan, it had almost obliged Trump to punish Turkey. Almost. Because Trump convinced himself that the person responsible for this embarrassing and dangerous agreement was none other than former President Barack Obama, who blocked Turkey from buying Patriot missile systems.
"He [Erdogan] wasn’t allowed by the Obama administration to buy it until after he made a deal to buy other missiles. So he buys the other missiles, and then all of sudden, they say, ‘Well, you can now buy our missiles.’ You can’t do business that way. It’s not good," Trump explained his turnabout, as though history began with his term.
Erdogan, as usual, immediately took advantage of the respite in the American pressure and Trump's sudden amiability and announced the Russian missiles will land in Turkey in a week to 10 days. Turkey has already appointed an air force colonel to head the new missile systems, Turkish officers and soldiers are training to operate them in Russia and Erdogan himself announced to the world that "Trump promised not to impose sanctions on Turkey."
Erdogan knows how to repay a favor. Last week he said Turkey was going to buy some 100 American Boeing planes in a deal estimated at $9-$44 billion dollars, depending on the plane models and their technical specifications.
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But what Trump can declare isn't necessarily in keeping with what he can do. According to Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the president is obliged to impose sanctions on any state that could harm the United States' interests by buying weapons from Russia, and Turkey falls within that category.
The law enables Trump to choose five of 12 sanctions, beginning with preventing entry visas to senior officials of the rival state, imposing economic sanctions, slashing loans to that state from financial institutions up to a full boycott.
Trump, whose relations with Congress are murky, among other things due to his decision to bypass legislation intended to prevent selling arms to Saudi Arabia, is facing another struggle on the Turkish issue. Erdogan cannot be certain yet that the missile deal will leave Turkey unscathed. The main possible blow for Turkey is its expulsion from the F-35 program, whose stealth jets it ordered and took part in assembling, and perhaps other economic sanctions.
The F-35 purchase has already been temporally frozen, as has the training of Turkish pilots in the U.S., until July 31, when the Congress' ultimatum on cancelling the Russian missile deal comes into effect.
Trump can avoid the sanctions if he persuades Congress that a concession to Turkey serves the U.S.' national and security interest. But then he'll have to answer some penetrating questions and confront U.S. partners in NATO, which see those missile systems a threat to the organization's ability to defend itself from a Russian offensive.
The concrete concern over those systems is that they will compel Turkey to act according to Russian rather than Western protocol. Russia will then be able to obtain important intelligence about NATO aircraft and defense methods from airstrikes. Moreover, if Turkey gets the F-35 jets, which Israel has also bought, Russia will be able to learn their secrets at first hand.
Turkey argues that the fear of passing on intelligence and technological knowhow should concern the Russians as well, because as a NATO member, Turkey would presumably be obligated to share this information with NATO countries. In other words, Turkey says the fear works both ways and therefore should not worry its Western partners.
Crossing a red line
But beyond the operative intelligence concerns, the missile deal raises questions in the West about Turkey's strategic position, attested to by the special military and economic ties between Ankara and Moscow that had strong economic ties before the missile deal. Turkey also serves as a transition station for Russian oil on its way to Europe, and Turkey's cooperation with Russia in the Syria's civil war secured its place in the Russian-Iranian-Turkish triangle, which is leading the war and the strategic moves to end it.
But deploying Russian missile systems that make Turkey independent of NATO in this aspect and the presence of Russian advisors in the Turkish military system are seen as crossing a red line that could undermine NATO's unity basis, which leans on the principle of "one for all and all for one."
Despite the contempt with which Trump treats NATO and his demand that member nations pay for the protection the U.S. provides them, he understands, at least according to his statements, that NATO is a vital body and here too lies his dilemma regarding his response to the Russian missile purchase.
Imposing sanctions on Turkey could distance it further from the Western club and tie its military future to Russia. An American leader, not to mention a Republican, who sees Iran as a global enemy and wants to mobilize all the world states against it, cannot renounce a strategic stronghold like Turkey.
Erdogan is counting on this dilemma. He is convinced that even if Washington slaps him with sanctions they'll be light ones, to pay lip service to the American law. At any time he can buy Patriot systems and thus allay the American fury and help the American coffer.
It's not clear why Turkey needs the Russian missile systems and against whom. The S-400 are seen as the most advanced systems and purchasing them would ensure Turkey a foothold in building the next generation of the S-500 defense missiles, but at this time Erdogan's goal is to position Turkey as a military power that can maneuver between Russia and the United States and gain strategic profits. This goal is a continuation to Turkey's influence in the Middle East and central Asia. It has a military base in Qatar and a training base in Somalia and it's planning to set up a military base in Sudan. Its forces have occupied territories in north Syria and it is acting in north Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Turkey maintains military ties with most central Asia states and has become one of the major weapon exporters. Its military industry has moved from almost total dependence on other states to domestic production, and if in the past it exported mainly light weapons, today it exports helicopters, drones, ships and advanced technological means.
The dramatic change it made from a country that has distanced itself from regional conflicts to an involved nation that sometimes dictates regional moves is a result of Erdogan's success in removing the army from politics and freeing himself from military dictates. He himself has become the true commander in chief of the Turkish armed forces and intelligence. For the first time in its modern history a civilian heads the army, even if he serves no military position and has no military experience.
The question now is how far Erdogan intends to stretch the limits with Trump. He has already proved at least twice that he's willing to step back when the pressure becomes intolerable. He did so when he was forced to apologize and appease Moscow after downing a Russian fighter jet in December of 2015. Russia then imposed extremely harsh sanctions on Turkey, critically harming its tourism and the economic ties between both countries.
Only about a year and a half later Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin met and signed a military cooperation agreement. The second time was when the United States imposed sanctions on Turkey as a penalty for the continued imprisonment of the American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was tried for allegedly cooperating with the Fethullah Gulen movement.
The sanctions, consisting of doubling the tariffs on Turkish metal products, caused the Turkish lira to plummet, a devaluation from which the Turkish economy has yet to recover. Erdogan decided the price was too high and in the summer of 2018 the pastor was released. This lesson not only attests to Erdogan's conduct, but shows that Trump knows how to use a whip when his blood pressure rises following bad behavior by someone who "is getting very high marks," as he then described Erdogan. This is the uncertainty factor Erdogan will have to deal with in the missile deal as well.
But withdrawing from the deal now will be a fatal blow to Erdogan's prestige, especially after the defeat in the Istanbul mayoral election, in addition to his fear of the Russian reaction. The Turkish president may end up in a diplomatic tangle and discover that in disregarding Trump he had set a trap for himself.