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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

The fate of Erdogan's Turkey hangs on its relations with the US and Russia

A web of complex alliances will determine whether the Turkish president can achieve his goals
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a ceremony marking the third anniversary of the attempted coup on July 15, 2016. Reuters/Murad Sezer

The current phase of Turkey's relations with the US and other Nato members is extremely delicate. Washington has now removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program in response to Ankara completing its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system, which could be used to acquire technological intelligence on Nato systems, including the F-35 itself.

President Donald Trump recently said he understood his Turkish counterpart's position, and blamed his predecessor Barack Obama for the crisis, indicating that the US may relent before deciding to slap sanctions on Turkey as desired by both sides of Congress.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary general, meanwhile, rushed to dismiss any talk of expelling Turkey from Nato, describing the nation as an important ally with whom co-operation goes deeper than the F-35 issue, albeit he did not downplay the issue of Ankara's acquisition of the S-400 system.

These relatively flexible positions do not mean that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has succeeded in his attempt to bring in Russia into the heart of the Nato alliance without recriminations. Indeed, the strategic response Mr Trump is choreographing against Mr Erdogan's actions will include Russian, Kurdish, Syrian, and Iraqi rhythms.

There will also be internal Turkish elements that could end up with the ousting of Mr Erdogan, either through the army or through the elections. That is, if he continues to press ahead with arrogant plans that resemble Iran's expansionist projects in the Arab world, such as his Muslim Brotherhood project, which has antagonised many countries in the region. In other words, the S-400 crisis is much bigger than it seems, and is laden with geopolitical, commercial, and security implications.

Turkey has already been sanctioned by being removed from the F-35 program as a result of Mr Erdogan's dogged insistence on going ahead with the S-400 deal. Ankara will also come under economic sanctions approved by Congress that range from reducing US banking loans to Turkish entities to harsher measures that could collapse the Turkish economy – for example if it is cut off completely from the US financial system.

Interestingly, all Nato members are entitled to access the defence systems of other member states. This means the US still comes out on top because it will be able to study the S-400 system's Russian technology now that Turkey has it.

So why did Russia sell the system if it knew it could fall into Nato hands? Sources say that the Russian military industrial complex had objected to the sale two years ago, but political and commercial considerations swayed the final decision. Mr Putin hopes that developments could lead Turkey to exit or be expelled from Nato. In commercial terms, Moscow wants to use the S-400 deal with Turkey as a dry run to sell the platform to India and possibly Arab Gulf countries and beyond.

The US is not rushing to action on the complex Turkish crisis because it does not consider itself the losing party, according to sources familiar with the thinking of the Trump administration. It also has many options, including sanctions.

Mr Erdogan's Turkey will also fall under European scrutiny. There is talk in Brussels, Nato's headquarters, that Ankara's membership in a number of Nato programmes can be frozen. But Turkey's membership of the alliance itself is not currently at risk. This is not only because Turkey's Nato membership is of vital importance, but because removing it from the alliance would serve the Russian agenda.

The US, in other words, will not allow this, and will not allow the Astana co-operation in Syria to become a Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance. This may explain Mr Trump's flexibility and accommodation, and his aversion to swift recrimination and sanctions. He seems to prefer a gradual response, beginning with blocking the sale of US hardware to Turkey, sanctions on Turkish arms manufacturers and exporters, and freezing the assets of Turkish entities that had been part of the F-35 development programme. Mr Trump feels he still needs Turkey in the Nato alliance, and hopes to gain its co-operation in the region, especially in Syria. He is also probably keen to learn the secrets of the S-400 system and perhaps, later even the S-500 system.

But Mr Trump may not forgive Mr Erdogan's defiance and the embarrassment he has caused him, domestically and internationally. Some observers say the Turkish military establishment could take matters into its own hands if Mr Erdogan goes too far in compromising Turkey's Nato credentials, regardless of how in control he has appeared to be since the failed coup attempt against him. Some say the US does not need to rush to get rid of Mr Erdogan via a military coup, because he is likely to be ousted in the elections in three years’ time. Many now believe that strong leaders in his party and the opposition are likely to emerge and challenge him and his project to turn Turkey from a secular state to a Muslim Brotherhood vanguard in the region.

With Mr Erdogan's fall, the Muslim Brotherhood project, which he is still trying to market in Libya and Sudan, despite its dismal failure in Egypt, would be buried, once and for all. Mr Erdogan is also still meddling in Gulf affairs, especially in Saudi Arabia, in a manner that has set off alarm bells in Washington.

The Kurdish issue is also important to Washington, despite its failed promises to the Kurds. Recent Turkish air strikes in Iraq, some 160 km deep into Iraqi territory against PKK positions, are noteworthy. The strikes were preceded by the assassination of the Turkish vice consul in Erbil, which triggered vows of retaliation in Ankara. In Syria, Turkey continues to intervene against Kurdish forces, and to engage the Syrian regime in various ways in line with Russian demands.

All this means that US-Turkish relations are complex and multi-layered.

Today, the main issues preoccupying the American president are the developments in the Gulf and the threats to international navigation there. The US is pushing for a maritime task force to address Iranian provocations.

Sources familiar with decision-making in Tehran say Tehran intends to go beyond seizing foreign oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz or Bab Al Mandeb, and is gearing up for a naval show of force in a “very personal” way. “They are cooking something, but it's not yet clear what … something more dangerous than oil tankers and drones,” one said. The sources stressed that Iran has run out of patience vis-a-vis US sanctions, which are expected to intensify, and could escalate further after next week.

The Iranian priority will dictate the rhythm of Washington's measures against Turkey. After the US president announced an American warship had shut down an Iranian drone, he said that the US reserves the right to defend its facilities and interests. In light of these mutual threats and intentions, the US-Iranian confrontation could thus be about to cross a dangerous military threshold, but time alone will tell.

Updated: July 20, 2019 04:49 PM