Trilateral Take: A Hot Summer for Turkey and the West

Ian Lesser
Soli Özel
Dov S. Zakheim
Magdalena Kirchner
6 min read
GMF recently convened the eighteenth edition of its Trilateral Strategy Group in Washington, bringing together senior leaders, analysts, and opinion shapers from Turkey, the United States and Europe for two days of conversati

GMF recently convened the eighteenth edition of its Trilateral Strategy Group in Washington, bringing together senior leaders, analysts, and opinion shapers from Turkey, the United States and Europe for two days of conversation. Our theme for this edition was “critical questions.” Among the most vexing of these questions is the very troubled outlook for Turkish-U.S. relations.

The following pieces by Soli Ozel, Dov Zakheim, and Magdalena Kirchner reflect on the issue from three transatlantic perspectives.  None make encouraging reading.  All three in different ways illustrate the gap between Turkey’s strategic importance and the mounting divergence with the country’s NATO allies. Dynamics in Washington and Europe are also part of the equation.  Relations with Ankara can be driven by shared values or interests-based transactions. In recent years, the values dimension has largely collapsed, and the practical aspect is deeply troubled. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the dispute over Turkey’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system.  If Turkey goes ahead with it – and there is every indication that it will – relations with Washington are headed for a train wreck. Ankara will be subject to a range of American sanctions, and not for the first time.

Can a derailment be avoided? Perhaps. But this would require the ability to agree a wider strategic bargain going well beyond the S-400 issue and addressing the long list of concerns on all sides. At a time of strident nationalism and personalized diplomacy, this is a remote prospect. U.S.-Turkish relations have never been easy to manage. There were good reasons why this “strategic relationship” used to be left to professionals. A collapse could have durable consequences for stakeholders on all sides of the U.S.-Turkish-European triangle.

GMF partners with TUSIAD, Koc Holding and the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs in this unique forum, convening twice each year at venues in Turkey, Sweden, and the U.S.

Ian O. Lesser, Vice President, GMF


Turkish Perspective:

Soli Özel, Professor of International Relations, Kadir Has University

This crisis over the purchase of S-400 missiles from the Russian Federation is very real. Despite the late American offer of providing Ankara with Patriot missiles and consistent rumors and leaks that Turkey is trying to find ways of delaying the delivery of S-400s, suggesting the formation of a joint committee with the US to investigate what if any problems would emerge if the sale goes through Turkey is adamant in buying these missiles.

No serious security or foreign policy analyst in Turkey favors the purchase of the S-400s. The reasoning is that it would not satisfy Turkey’s real needs. The cost of that purchase is the further alienation of Turkey from the Western Alliance. The sanctions and the reverberations of these sanctions will not only severely harm Turkey’s security but also further weaken its already turbulent and vulnerable economy.

As of yet, the government has not come up with a satisfactory explanation as to why these missiles ought to be purchased apart from the fact that Turkey’s Western allies were wanting in showing solidarity with the Turkish government during the botched coup attempt of 15 July 2016. On that night, President Putin was on the phone from the get-go with his counterpart President Erdoğan. Russia and Turkey have forged a very close relationship in the past three years and despite their divergent interests in Syria have coordinated policies under the Astana process, which is arguably falling apart in the bloody battles of Idlib. It is also clear that the Russian Government enjoys putting such a serious wedge between Turkey and the United States. Relations are already troubled because of many other critical issues including perhaps most importantly the U.S. alignment with PYD/YPG, an extension of Turkey’s nemesis PKK, in northeastern Syria.

The possible breakdown of Turkey’s strategic Westernness as a result of this crisis will bring about a geopolitical earthquake the full consequences of which for Turkey and the Western Alliance cannot be fully foreseen. For Turkey, Russia for both historical and current economic/strategic reasons cannot be a long-term strategic ally. For the Western alliance and the U.S., a turbulent and rudderless Turkey will be a highly unmanageable problem.


U.S. Perspective:

Dov S. Zakheim

Senior Fellow, CNA Corporation

Turkey and the United States are on a collision course. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refuses to back down in the face of American pressure and will certainly acquire Russian S-400 air defense systems. Indeed, he has talked about cooperating with Moscow in developing the next generation S-500 system.

Washington is certain to retaliate. Last week, it was reported that the U.S. will stop accepting Turkish pilots to train for the F-35 program. Meanwhile, Congressional legislation already has suspended delivery of the aircraft to Turkey, which had been slated to commence in November 2019. In addition, Washington has suspended both F-35 training for Turkish pilots, currently at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and maintenance training at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Washington and Ankara are exploring ways to avoid the triggering of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Act. Perhaps they can find a way to sidestep the S-400 sale and go ahead with the F-35 sale. One option that is being mooted is to have the Russian system deployed outside Turkey, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.  Another possible solution would have the U.S. to sell Turkey a stripped-down version of the F-35. Either approach would be controversial: the former would enrage the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member, while the latter would not satisfy those who do not want the Russians to go anywhere near any version of the F-35, which no doubt they would if the sale were finalized.

Yet some solution has to be found. Turkey simply is too important a member of NATO and critical to the defense of Europe against possible Russian aggression. Moreover, Turkey might well choose to exit NATO, or at least remove itself from NATO’s integrated military command. In that case, there would only be one beneficiary of such an unfortunate turn of events: Russia’s autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin.


EU Perspective:

Magdalena Kirchner

Chief Operating Officer and Senior Analyst, CONIAS Risk Intelligence

It is not unlikely that the junkyard of the U.S.-Turkish train wreck will be Europe as in all pessimistic scenarios, the repercussions will be felt here immediately. More than 17,000 Turkish citizens sought asylum in the EU since July 2016, a record high since 1980. Recent tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean increase the risk of military confrontation even on EU territory. Both internal strife and further deterioration of Turkey’s relations with the West threaten European efforts to contain migration from the global south. Over 7,500 companies from Germany alone are heavily invested in the country’s economic future and European banks exposed to Turkey’s financial market turmoil can be found in Spain and Italy, already under budget stress. Finally, a rupture in U.S.-Turkish security ties will re-open the debate about nuclear sharing in Europe – a highly sensitive topic, especially in Germany. Since U.S. President Trump started to threaten to “devastate Turkey economically”, also European leaders have grown ever more sensitive to signals of hostility between them. In public, however, most have chosen to either ignore the crisis as the problems of others or gave the impression that their main concern is to have their interests thrown under the bus by a belligerent U.S. policy.

After wasting months as mere bystanders, Europeans should take action where mediation still seems possible. Widening the discussion about technology sharing within NATO, addressing Turkey’s legitimate energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean or providing credible support, as it is currently discussed in Germany, to one of the few confidence building projects Washington and Ankara have been able to initiate in the recent past, the planned safe zone in Northern Syria, there are still steps to be taken into the right direction but little to no time to be wasted.