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On September 12, 2017, Turkey signed and made a deposit toward a $2.5 billion agreement to purchase Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. Russia will sell Turkey two batteries and transfer the technology for Ankara to produce two of its own, while Turkey will supply the batteries’ target-identification software. As Pentagon officials have noted, the S-400 is not interoperable with NATO’s air defense system, causing some experts to speculate about Turkey’s relationship with the alliance.
The S-400, a state-of-the-art missile defense system, is overkill in defending against non-state armed groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) or the Kurds. It also represents a massive political and economic investment for Turkey, which has been looking to improve its missile defense systems since the 1990s. Ankara’s decision to go to Russia for this acquisition suggests, moreover, a lingering frustration with NATO.
The alliance is supposed to protect Turkey from external threats, and in recent years Ankara’s concerns about the Syrian war have led it to repeatedly invoke Article Four of the North Atlantic Treaty, which requires NATO members to “consult together whenever… the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” Since the beginning of the Syrian war, for instance, Turkey advocated for a no-fly zone in Syria that was eventually thwarted by the United States. These cases seem to have convinced Turkey that it needs to look out for itself.
The S-400 will also bolster Turkey’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy agenda, granting Ankara greater freedom to conduct itself abroad. In addition to its involvement in Syria, Turkey has shown interest in mediating in Afghanistan, supporting the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, playing a role in the dispute between Qatar and the bloc of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, and countering violent extremism in Somalia. By acquiring increased defense capabilities, Turkey is playing the long game, and enhancing its ability to respond to threats in a quickly evolving security environment.
Today, trust between Turkey and the rest of NATO is practically nonexistent. Alliance members who are concerned about the integrity of Turkey’s democratic institutions should work toward rebuilding their relationship with Ankara. A practical solution is for NATO members to coordinate with Turkey in its diplomatic efforts and to build confidence in the alliance. Only by doing so can they retain their influence with Turkey and keep it from drifting further toward Russia.
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It is no secret that relations between Turkey and other NATO members are tense. Many of the latter have criticized Ankara’s authoritarian turn under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, especially following the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Since then, Erdogan has dismissed or suspended over 100,000 public officials and civil servants, jailed between 150 and 200 journalists, and recently removed evolution from the high school curriculum.
The resulting conflicts between Ankara and NATO have been quite public. In April, Erdogan drew the ire of European leaders while campaigning for a referendum among Turks living in Europe—the Netherlands refused entry to two Turkish ministers, and was backed in doing so by Germany and France. Then in early September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an end to Turkey’s EU accession talks over Ankara’s human rights abuses, including the jailing of journalists and members of the opposition. Erdogan responded in kind, referring to Merkel’s stance as “Nazism.”
U.S.-Turkish animosity has grown as well. The United States, too, has been critical of Turkey’s human rights violations, while Ankara has been particularly incensed both over Washington’s refusal to extradite Fetullah Gulen—a cleric who Erdogan believes was behind the coup and who currently lives in Pennsylvania—and its military support for armed Kurdish groups in Syria, many of which are connected to Kurdish separatists in Turkey. At the moment the United States and Turkey have suspended the processing of one another’s visa applications, in a tit-for-tat escalation over the Turkish government’s arrest of a U.S. consulate employee charged with having ties to the Gulen movement.
These bilateral confrontations have begun to affect Ankara’s status within NATO. This year, both Germany and the United States restricted arms sales to Turkey. (Washington’s restrictions were limited, applying only to Erdogan’s security guards, who in May assaulted protestors on U.S. soil.) And on September 25, Turkey officially accused private defense companies from Germany and the United States of imposing an indirect embargo by halting or delaying arms deals. Such disputes are particularly disruptive to a military alliance, given the importance of intra-alliance arms sales.
The purchase of the S-400 is about geopolitics.
There are no excuses for Erdogan’s domestic crackdown, yet the purchase of the S-400 has more to do with Turkey’s foreign policy than its internal politics. Ankara has been in the market for better air defense technology for years. In the past it has sought to purchase such weapons from members of NATO, but a key tenet of these negotiations was always the transfer of technology, which would help Turkey build up its domestic defense industry. Yet no alliance member was willing to agree to these terms for the right price, and past talks with Italy, France, and the United States all fell through. Ankara had thus begun to turn to states outside the alliance, such as China and Russia, but until recently NATO pressure had hindered these deals.
The S-400 is greatly respected across the world as an air-defense system. Russian media claims that it can target aircraft, cruise missiles, medium-range missiles, and drones and other airborne surveillance systems, although its full capabilities have yet to be tested in combat. The S-400’s strategic worth can also be measured by the success of its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) system, which essentially creates a no-fly zone wherever the system is set up. Russian deployment of the S-400 in Syria helped to force U.S.-Russian cooperation to ensure that U.S. aircraft would not accidentally be targeted and shot down, potentially starting an armed conflict.
According to Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst at Istanbul’s Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, Turkey is pursuing a dual-track defense planning strategy, in which it complies with its NATO obligations to use a European missile defense system by running the X-band radar in Kurecik while also bolstering its military capabilities by procuring the S-400. (NATO’s missile defense system was created with the explicit intent of countering the Iranian missile program, and the X-band radar plays a vital role in early detection of Iranian missiles.)
The purchase of the S-400 is therefore about geopolitics. Turkey under Erdogan has begun to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy—one that may require greater flexibility outside of the NATO umbrella. Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu cites Merve Seren of the Turkish think tank SETA, who argues that NATO’s “change in the definition and perception of threats of high-priority risk” represents a security vulnerability for Turkey. Developing a flexible defense system that is not, like NATO, focused on Iran may enable Turkey to pursue initiatives abroad without fear of retaliation.
For instance, Ankara is currently expanding its role in Afghanistan (while distancing itself from the U.S.-led NATO mission there) and possibly acting as a mediator between Afghanistan and Pakistan. During this year’s UN General Assembly, Erdogan and Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi reportedly agreed on the revival of the Afghan-Pakistani-Turkish trilateral peace process, initiated in 2007. A revival of this peace process could stand in opposition to the United States’ plan to escalate its fight with the Taliban, as Turkey considers certain elements of the Taliban to be a crucial part of any reconciliation.
Turkey has also become a major player in the dispute between its ally Qatar and a bloc of Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia. In July, during the Saudi-led embargo, Turkey deployed more troops to its military bases in Qatar to defend the country’s borders—an action that could place Turkey firmly in the Saudis’ crosshairs. U.S. and Kuwaiti attempts at mediation have so far not culminated in an agreement, so NATO members should consider engaging with Turkey, an ally with skin in the game, to defuse this conflict.
In August, Turkey opened a military base in Somalia as part of Ankara’s efforts to combat al Shabab. Turkey has long led the effort to rehabilitate Somalia following its period of anarchy, which may indicate that it is ready to take on a greater role in combatting extremist militants around the world. This could be yet another opportunity for NATO cooperation with Turkey, as the United States sent dozens of troops to Somalia this April, also to fight al Shabab.
On October 9, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged that “Turkey is in dialogue with France and Italy on possible delivery of air defense systems from them … on top of the S-400.” These discussions have been open since 2010, but never came to fruition because of disagreements over cost and Turkey’s request for technology transfers. Pursuing these negotiations aggressively would help to build confidence between Turkey and the rest of NATO, but this effort is not enough. In a 2015 German Marshall Fund survey of Turkish perceptions, for instance, NATO and the UN were perceived as trustworthy by only one-third of respondents.
Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 is, in short, a product of its aggravation over what it perceives to be NATO’s failure to recognize Ankara’s new role in providing regional security. The S-400 is not preparation for war, but it allows Turkey to engage in regional conflicts while ensuring it can respond to new threats if relations with NATO members continue to deteriorate. Erdogan has shown initiative in coordinating regional security efforts and NATO members should seek to engage Turkey in these efforts. Doing so will help further the alliance’s security interests and help NATO critics of Erdogan maintain influence in Turkey’s domestic politics.