Alienating a G-20 member, the F-35 Project level-3 partner NATO ally that can field real military power when needed was not the smartest decision to serve US strategic interests
As the title implies, this is going to be a thought-provoking opinion piece. It argues that the chief reasons behind Turkey’s S-400 procurement remain a grave fault on the part of Western defense diplomacy in its method of approaching Ankara. Besides, what makes this article even more interesting is the very fact that it was penned by an analyst who has professionally argued that, although the S-400 is a robust anti-access / area denial asset, if Turkey has to choose between a standalone Russian defensive strategic weapon system and a NATO-compatible one, it should go for the latter. The reason is — I concluded in my reports — that air and missile defense capabilities are manifested through a holistic architecture. In return, of course, Turkey’s transatlantic allies should meet (or should have met) Ankara’s demands for adequate offsets, as well as co-production and technology transfer within a reasonable portfolio.
Before jumping into the S-400 arguments, there is one more thing that needs to be ironed out. Nowadays, the trend among the Western political-military analysts is to reduce Turkey’s geopolitical ties with NATO into a simpler framework of military procurements or day-to-day politics. However, the reality is far too different and complex. To develop a better understanding, one would need a brief tour.
A geopolitical itinerary to explore Turkey’s value for NATO
Let us explore Turkey’s core geostrategic meaning for NATO in a thought-provoking manner. Imagine yourself taking a flight to Tbilisi. Enjoy the excellent Georgian cuisine while having a talk with some high-ranking officials there. Ask them which NATO nation has supported them the most both during and after the 2008 Russian intervention. At a time when the S-400 deal was already on the table and even before a prominent NATO audience in the last Brussels summit, the Turkish foreign minister said that while many allies had simply forgotten about Georgia, Turkey had not and never would. Ask Georgian officials from which other foreign offices they could hear such solid words of support.
Then, take a short flight from Tbilisi to Baku. Enjoy the majestic view of the endless mountainous landscape and snowy hilltops during the flight. Sipping your coffee while watching the gas platforms in the Caspian, a truly unique experience, have a chat with some Azerbaijani officials. If you know some Turkish, you are lucky. You would not need a translator there. Ask them, what they think about heavy Russian forward-deployments in Armenia, first and foremost the 102nd Base, as well as the SS-26 Iskander ballistic missiles that Moscow provided to Yerevan with lucrative loans. Then ask the very same Azerbaijani officials which NATO nation they see as a truly reliable military strategic counter-balancer. Ask them which country has always been an anchor and bridge to the West, and thanks to whom the transatlantic alliance has geopolitical credit in the South Caucasus, a region sandwiched between Russia and Iran.
The final trip would take a few hours, so get a good book from the bookshops of Baku. Upright your seat, activate your electronic devices’ flight mode, and fasten your seatbelt. You are flying to Kiev this time. There, you will have an appointment with the Ukrainian defense procurement bodies. Ask them which NATO nation did not refrain from selling armed drones (Bayraktar TB-2, one of the best solutions available at the tactical armed drone market globally) with no known restrictions in operational use amidst the Ukrainian security forces operations in the eastern part of the country. More importantly, one should not underestimate that Ankara decided to offer the most combat-proven armed drone in its inventory to Ukraine while dealing with a multibillion-dollar Russian defensive strategic weapon system. Turkish and Ukrainian defense industries have also been pursuing an important co-production effort to build active protection systems (based on the Ukrainian Zaslon line) for the Turkish military’s armored platforms.
I am sure you are well aware of an astonishing truth about your flights between the three capitals. So far, your culturally-rich trip has taken place in an area that the Russian strategic thinking considers to be a vital hinterland and zone d’influence. In this part of the world, probably Turkey has the most visible signature among all NATO nations. If you have time, you could take a long flight to Afghanistan to explore the perceptions of the indigenous people about the Turkish military presence there (in Uzbek and Turkmen dominated places, you can have your conversations in Turkish too), read a backgrounder about the Turkish Navy’s contributions to the counter-piracy and human trafficking activity across the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean, or do some research about the Turkish contribution to the NATO operations in the Balkans.
At this point, I know the very question in your mind. So, how in the world, Turkey, a country gifted with many geopolitical opportunities for the transatlantic alliance, could end up with the most advanced Russian SAM system available for its air defense? Well, if you are a government official in a NATO capital or an analyst in the transatlantic strategic community, then congratulations! As Ankara’s NATO allies, you absolutely did your best to secure a multi-billion dollar business for Almaz-Antey, the primary producer of the S-400. Below, you may find some answers about how this could happen.
Why is the Western defense diplomacy failing in Turkey’s S-400 acquisition?
Let us revisit a fact. Not only the Russian defense sources, but also available Western writings consider the S-400 to be a very capable anti-access / area denial (A2/AD) asset, and a very survivable SAM system thanks to its mobility and improved resiliency against electronic warfare. After all, the S-400 remains the weapon of choice for Russian defense planners to protect the capital Moscow as well as their contingent in Syria. Other inputs are also noteworthy. Open-source Pakistani military assessments, for example, voiced grave concerns about India’s S-400 procurement that it could further tip the military balance towards New Delhi. In addition, several wealthy Gulf nations are to diversify their air defense portfolios through potential S-400 buys.
Do not get me wrong. I still firmly stand with what I have professionally analyzed before with regards to the pros and cons of Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400. I have penned comprehensive reports for EDAM, which enjoys a highly reputable think-tank ranking in the defense and national security segment globally, concluding that although the S-400 remains a formidable A2/AD arm when it comes to the particular Turkish case, the system’s standalone situation would severely limit its ballistic missile defense capabilities. This would inevitably render the S-400 into a sole air defense weapon with probable political and economic costs. Besides, a standalone defensive strategic weapon system in the age of network-centric warfare sounds impractical.
However, I also believe that one should address a number of critical questions to understand the road to Ankara’s S-400 decision.
In the NATO Brussels Summit communiqué, the allied leaders mentioned how the ballistic missile threat emanating from Syria has hit Turkey several times. So, why do we see only Italy and Spain keeping their air and missile defense deployments in the Turkish soil?
Turkey has always had to deal with a very problematic environment when it comes to ballistic missile proliferation and weapons of mass destruction programs. After all, no other NATO nation shared borders with Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, definitely not the most peaceful neighbors one could ask for. More importantly, in a number of cases, we find well-known North Korean missile know-how transfers to Turkey’s neighbors. For example, back in 2005, the Syrian Arab Army test-launched North Korean-origin Scud-Ds in airburst mode, a 700-km range ballistic missile, suitable for delivering chemical and biological payloads. One of the missiles fell to the Turkish border town of Hatay. Finally, back in 2011, high-ranking commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the strongest missile power of the Middle East, openly threatened to target NATO’s X-band radar in Kurecik, Turkey. Now, one could also wonder why the only NATO nation directly facing the missile threat in the Middle East has not received lucrative tech-transfer and co-production opportunities for decades to develop its national ballistic missile defense capabilities? Just like Estonia becoming the cyber powerhouse of the transatlantic alliance following the 2007 attacks, under normal conditions, Ankara’s NATO allies should have boosted their support to the Turkish defense industry in missile defense capability development. This did not happen.
All the abovementioned incidents have caused quite a bit of disappointment among the Turkish defense planners. When Turkey needed armed drones, the U.S. Congress was not that enthusiastic or generous. When Turkey needed additional attack helicopters, getting them was so hard as if Ankara had asked for nuclear bombers with ready-to-deliver payloads. During the 1990s, when the Turkish military faced with the most serious terrorism challenge in the republic’s history, some European allies exercised geographical and operational restrictions on their exported weaponry. All these developments triggered a strategic cultural reaction in Ankara.
Was Russia a true friend of Turkey while all these developments were happening? Of course not. In the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, for example, Turkey and Russia stand their grounds, still belonging to rival camps, and the Turkish administration would not step back from that. But, by outclassing its Western competitors, the Kremlin pragmatically saw the window of opportunity to build strategic bridges with Ankara, since Moscow’s is a realist geopolitical school, not one that is naive, riddled with indecision and timidity. The West perceived it as a political signaling attempt from a disappointed Turkey, something similar to the Chinese HQ-9 deal back in 2013. It was not a precise intelligence assessment. In fact, Ankara was not signaling at all when negotiating for the S-400. Yet, it came as no surprise since the Western intelligence community and foreign offices have had many analysis failures in the 21st century ranging from the Arab Spring to Crimea. Without a doubt, Turkey’s transatlantic drift in Syria played an important role in this break.
Syrian dilemma and how PYD/YPG was favored over a NATO ally
Apart from the defense industry issues, like tech transfer or co-production, Turkey’s deep disagreements with the West in Syria has been another significant problem area that Russia capitalizes on. In other words, the U.S.-led anti-Daesh coalition’s backing of PYD/YPG remains one of the biggest “advertisements” behind the Turkish administration’s S-400 journey.
Here is the story: While “no boots on the ground” has become the primary limitation of all NATO nations when it comes to contributing to the U.S.-led anti-Daesh coalition, Turkey offered a robust land force to fight the 21st century’s most dangerous hybrid war, supported by American airpower. Ankara had beefed up its 2nd Field Army along the Syrian border, with its hundreds of thousands-strong manpower dwarfing many European countries’ entire armed forces. More importantly, both the parliament and the public opinion supported the Turkish administration’s decision to launch a large-scale counter-terrorism campaign — something the Pentagon could not even expect from other NATO countries nowadays. Besides, Turkey shares more than a 900-km-long border with Syria, it enjoys excellent artillery and unmanned systems capabilities, and its airbases could support a very high operational tempo. Overall, Ankara was totally ready to share a very heavy burden in one of the riskiest battle-spaces in the world.
However, Washington decided to proceed with the PYD/YPG, and turned down the Turkish option. Notably, in his Congressional hearing, then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter openly said that these groups had substantial ties with the PKK terrorist organization, which is designated as such not only by Turkey but also the U.S. In the meanwhile, special capacity building programs have delivered thousands of tactically game-changer weapons to date, especially anti-armor assets, to the PYD / YPG under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Any military analyst who studied the 2006 conflict between the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Israeli Defense Forces would grasp how these deliveries could bleed a conventional army. What is worse, although the U.S. officials assured Ankara that their collaboration with the PYD/YPG was transactional and limited to the anti-Daesh agenda, up until now, no tangible buy-back roadmaps have emerged for these arms. Likewise, it seems that Washington’s plans about the PYD could extend to the post-war design and rebuilding efforts in Syria. While these were happening, Russia opened the Syrian airspace for Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch.
Clearly, alienating a G-20 member, the F-35 Project level-3 partner NATO ally that can field real military power when needed, and instead, endorsing a group that established neo-Maoist communes and forcibly changed Arab demographics in northern Syria was not the smartest decision to serve US strategic interests. Besides, threatening the former on Twitter with devastating its economy to protect the latter following President Trump’s withdrawal decision proved very detrimental to NATO’s coherence at a time when the alliance is being seriously tested. But still, as the latest Munich Security Conference showed, Turkey may not be the only transatlantic pillar hampered by the contemporary U.S. foreign and defense policy rhetoric.
Briefly, the story so far has been, more or less, how Turkey’s NATO allies have advertised the Russian S-400 system to Ankara. Will Turkey finalize the procurement? Well, I am not a part of the administration; I am only a defense analyst. So, simply, I do not know. But I can note that the Turkish government is definitely not signaling a step back from the S-400, and there is a visibly strong determination in this respect. In fact, back in 2013, the failed deal for the Chinese HQ-9 system should have sent a firm message to Turkey’s Western allies. At the time, Ankara did not crack under pressure, but instead, it simply dropped the HQ-9 acquisition due to the expectation that the West would offer more lucrative opportunities.
As a final note, we should mention Turkey’s need to build reliable track 1.5 and track 2 diplomacy capabilities, namely an effective strategic community and world-class think-tanks, to anticipate major problems in the transatlantic ties before they turn into crises between governments.