Can’t Afford to Go Soft on Turkey
Edelman and Jonathan Schanzer
May 15, 2019
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be playing dumb, but he’s not stupid.
strongman plunked down a deposit for Russia’s advanced S-400 air-defense
system in December 2017—months after Congress passed a law that triggers
painful U.S. sanctions on governments that purchase Russian armaments. Now Mr.
Erdogan wants an exemption, and he apparently believes President Trump is
inclined to give him one. Mr. Trump likely cannot do so without congressional
approval. But even if he could, he shouldn’t.
Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, is crystal
clear about imposing sanctions on any entity that “engages in a significant
transaction with . . . defense or intelligence sectors of the
Government of the Russian Federation.” The S-400 cost Ankara around $2.5
billion and is widely believed to rank among the most lethal air defense systems
in the world.
its lethality is not the reason that the U.S. State and Treasury departments
have been pleading with Mr. Erdogan to cancel the sale. The greater problem is
that it risks exposing U.S. technology to hostile powers.
is in line to receive the American-made F-35; Turkish pilots are already
training on these fifth-generation fighter aircraft at a base in Arizona.
Operating the aircraft in conjunction with Russian S-400s could enable Moscow to
track and collect intelligence on the capabilities of the most advanced jet
fighter in the world. This would threaten the U.S. military’s already
diminishing qualitative advantage—not to mention that of American allies who
also acquire the aircraft.
addition to inviting congressionally mandated sanctions, Mr. Erdogan’s
decision to acquire the S-400 could cost him the F-35. The Pentagon officially
halted the delivery of F-35 training equipment and related material on April 1.
Turkish pilots are still training, but it’s unclear how much longer that will
argue that these measures against Turkey are a mistake. After all, Turkey is a
member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And if the U.S. is not
careful, it could push Ankara out of the alliance—straight into the arms of
Russia or even Iran.
Turkey has been outside the NATO tent for a decade now. It is the largest
external headquarters for the terrorist group Hamas in the Middle East. It has
supported the worst jihadist actors in the Syrian civil war, including some
linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State. From 2012-15, at the height of the effort
to force Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions, the Turks were involved in a
massive sanctions evasion scheme that netted Iran an estimated $20 billion.
Turkey has descended into authoritarianism domestically. The government in
Ankara is now the world’s top jailer of journalists. It has held Americans and
other Westerners hostage. Mr. Erdogan has a personal stranglehold on the media
and the judiciary. Whatever is left of the country’s democratic process is
groaning under the weight of Mr. Erdogan’s efforts to manipulate it—as he
demonstrated by his government’s recent nullification of the March 31 Istanbul
officials and legislators have demonstrated great patience despite all this.
They have repeatedly engaged the Turks and forestalled punitive measures in
hopes of a turnaround. Sadly, U.S. efforts to maintain the alliance with Turkey
may have succeeded only in convincing Ankara that it is “too big to fail.”
Turkish officials have become convinced that the U.S. will blink first.
they think Mr. Trump will. As one Turkish official remarked in April, “We are
getting signals that Trump pursues a more positive attitude than Congress.”
would not be the first time an anti-American strongman has sought to drive a
wedge between the president and Congress to get what he wants. Russia is now
infamous for doing this in the wake of the 2016 U.S. elections. That’s one
reason Congress passed CAATSA in 2017.
Trump lambastes allies who fail to pull their weight. Turkey tops that list,
relying on U.S. beneficence while undermining U.S. interests. The president
should not succumb to Mr. Erdogan’s blandishments. Instead of coddling Mr.
Erdogan, the administration must force Turkey to decide whether it remains a
part of the Western alliance in fact or in name only.