An Opportunity Arises

January 31, 2024
Photo credit: Gints Ivuskans /
There is now a chance that long-troubled relations between Türkiye and the United States could find firmer footing.

Movement, when it came, was swift. Türkiye’s Grand National Assembly approved Sweden’s NATO membership last week, and within days President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed the necessary decree to finalize the decision. No sooner was the final instrument of ratification received in Washington when the US State Department formally notified Congress of the pending $23 billion sale of 40 F-16 aircraft and auxiliary equipment to modernize Ankara’s fleet. The rapid turn of events heralds a rare opportunity for restoring the Turkish-US security relationship.

But expectations should remain tempered, at least in the short term. The two nations share a high level of distrust in one another, and little public and elite support for the relationship exists. Both countries may be NATO members, but their bilateral relationship is and will likely remain transactional. This makes a grand bargain to resolve all policy differences and grievences unrealistic. A one-size-fits-all formula for managing security issues should be replaced by case-by-case discussions and negotiations. Ankara and Washington should continue to cooperate where they can, bridge differences when possible, and contain disputes that cannot be overcome.

The Turkish acquistion of Russia’s S-400 missile system remains one such dispute. Overcoming it will not be easy. Washington refuses to accept Türkiye's possession of the system and maintains sanctions against the country under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The United States also continues to bar Türkiye's readmission to the F-35 program. For its part, Ankara will not give the S-400s to a third country even if its contract with Russia does not prohibit such a move. Erdoğan would still need to justify investing in the system only to give it away.

A creative solution would permit Türkiye to keep deactivated S-400s in storage, with US monitoring, perhaps in return for suspending CAATSA sanctions and deploying US Patriot missile batteries to meet Ankara’s immediate need for an air defense system. This would open the door to other opportunities to improve the bilateral relationship, including Türkiye’s readmission to the F-35 program. Acting US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said in an interview with Turkish media that a resolution to the S-400 issue would lead the United States to make such a move.

Dialogue between leaders is crucial to rebuilding Turkish-US relations. Since Joe Biden assumed the presidency in 2021, no official visit with Erdoğan has occurred. Interactions on the sidelines of international events have been infrequent. Close relations at lower levels of government exist, but they cannot compensate for the absence of substantive presidential dialogue.

Türkiye faces a fraught regional security situation, which gives it and the United States an incentive to improve their relations. The recent, mutually beneficial action in Ankara and Washington has created an opportunity to do this. It is now up to the political leadership in both capitals to seize it.