Former Obama Defense Secretary Urges Biden to Step Up U.S. Pressure on Erdogan

Robert Gates writes in New York Times that Turkey, a fellow NATO member, must also be held to account for its actions in Libya and Syria

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Robert Gates, pictured in 2010 when he was still serving as defense secretary under then-President Barack Obama.
Robert Gates, pictured in 2010 when he was still serving as defense secretary under then-President Barack Obama.Credit: REUTERS

WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged the incoming Biden administration to take a tougher stance with Turkey, suggesting further punitive steps could be taken against its fellow NATO member following its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system.

Gates’ comments, published in a New York Times opinion piece on Friday, stated that the purchase, which came after repeated American warnings, “must have costs. (Recently imposed sanctions are a good start.)”

The United States has warned that the Russian defense systems pose a threat to F-35 fighter jets and NATO’s broader defense systems – a claim that Turkey denies.

Gates, who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations from December 2006 to July 2011, added that Turkey “must also be held to account for its actions in Libya, the eastern Mediterranean and Syria that contravene the interests of other NATO allies and complicate efforts to achieve peace. Actions by member states contrary to the interests of other allies ought not be ignored.” 

The former defense secretary also grouped Turkey with Hungary and, “increasingly,” Poland as NATO members that have moved toward, if not fully embraced, authoritarianism. “There is no provision in the NATO Charter for removing a member state, but creative diplomacy is possible, including suspension or other punitive steps,” Gates wrote.

While serving as defense secretary, Gates effectively blamed the European Union for Turkey’s degrading relationship with Israel and Western allies. “If there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward, it is, in my view, in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought,” Gates said in 2010.

Gates’ piece was published a day after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country would take reciprocal action against the United States following the S-400-related sanctions imposed early last week. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan termed the sanctions a “hostile attack” against Turkey’s defense industry that was bound to fail.

Turkey also claims it cannot be sanctioned based on the U.S.’ Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, as the S-400 deal predated the 2017 legislation.

A Russian transport aircraft, carrying parts of the S-400 air defense systems, lands at Murted military airport outside Ankara, Turkey, August 27, 2019. Credit: /AP

Cavusoglu told Turkish media last Thursday that improved relations between Turkey and the United States under the incoming Biden administration are dependent on Turkish expectations regarding Syria and the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based cleric Turkey accuses of orchestrating a 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan.