US-Turkey confrontation over S-400 missiles appears inevitable ahead of NATO meeting

A new US senate bill would block transfers of the F-35 jets if Turkey receives the Russian S-400 in July

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks on March 29, 2019 during an election rally at Maltepe district in Istanbul. The Turkish president is campaigning for votes for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of municipal elections on March 31.  / AFP / Ozan KOSE
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As members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) make their way to Washington next week for a ministerial meeting, US tension with Turkey over its S-400 Russian missile system purchase is looming over the gathering.

In the last 24 hours, both Ankara and Washington have signalled escalation. The US Senate introduced a bill to block F-35 transfers to Turkey if the S-400 system gets delivered, yet the Turkish foreign minister showed no signs of backing down.

“We have signed a deal with Russia, and this deal is valid. Now we are discussing the delivery process,” Turkish chief diplomat Melvut Cavusoglu told reporters on Friday as he received his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

His comments came hours after a new bipartisan bill was introduced in the US Senate to block the F-35 transfers if the S-400 delivery occurs in July. With 100 F-35 jets in line to be delivered to Turkey, the US Senators sponsoring the bill, S-922, are threatening to abort the process unless Turkey submits a written commitment that it "does not plan or intend" to proceed with obtaining the Russian S-400 system.

The bill was introduced and cosponsored by Republican Senators James Lankford and Thom Tillis, and Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Chris Van Hollen.

“It’s concerning that Turkey would seek close defence cooperation with Russia, whose authoritarian ruler seeks to undermine NATO and US interests at every turn,” Mr Lankford said. The alliance is set to meet Wednesday and Thursday in the US capital, and the Turkish foreign minister is expected to attend.

The S-400 purchase would “endanger the integrity of NATO” and have “significant impact” on the US-Turkish defence cooperation, Senator Shaheen said.

If written into law, the Senate bill would block “any funds ... obligated or expended" to transfer the F-35 sales to Turkey. It is the latest escalation by Congress to stop the deal. But with time running out, experts on the subject see little room left for compromise.

Nicholas Danforth, a visiting Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund where he studies Turkey, described the Senate bill as a “belated realisation that Turkey is not backing down on the purchase of S-400.”

"A compromise will be difficult so long as Turkey continues to see this purchase as a symbolic declaration of independence from Washington," Mr Danforth told The National.

On the one hand, he argued there are “the practical benefits of the S-400 system itself, and a desire for improved relations with Russia”; on the other, “Turkish policymakers have emphasised that this is a first step toward their vision of a more independent foreign policy,” he said.

US defence officials have communicated to Turkey that it is a zero-sum game and acquiring the S-400 will come at the expense of the F-35s. Katie Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs told Reuters, ”the S-400 is a computer. The F-35 is a computer. You don't hook your computer to your adversary's computer and that's basically what we would be doing.”

In the short run, “Turkey's confrontational push for a more non-aligned foreign policy will only provoke a growing backlash from Washington,” said Mr Danforth, but that “it remains to be seen whether further down the road both sides might be able to reestablish a more functional relationship on changing terms.”

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the Senate bill “is just the beginning” of a path of escalation between Ankara and Washington if the S-400 is delivered in July.

“We are looking at a scenario where a Russian missile system and a hard headed refusal to take the US seriously will degrade the Turkish position on the transatlantic alliance,” Mr Stein said. “Turkey can still decide to cancel this, but that is something they have said they will not do."

Besides the new Senate bill, the S-400 delivery to Turkey would immediately trigger sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) law passed by Congress and signed by the US President in August 2017. The law punishes anyone doing transactions with certain Russian intelligence and military entities. Ankara is also risking its membership in the Joint Strike Fighter program that it joined in 2002, and at least 100 F-35 fighters on order from the United States.