The Last Time I Checked, Turkey Was Still a Member of NATO

07/31/2017 07:21 pm ET

Turkey agreed to purchase Russia’s advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles (SAM). According to a Turkish official who is not authorized to publicly discuss the matter, the delivery of the first two S-400 missile batteries from Russia is expected next year. What should one make of Turkey's purchase when it comes to the future of international relations between Russia and the United States? Let's address a few interpretations.

It's common knowledge that Turkey has been a member of NATO for the past six decades. Yet, many global affairs analysts are asking, Does Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s SAM missiles send a message to NATO that Turkey will oppose NATO's policies when it comes to Ankara’s interests? The answer is evident.

A couple of years ago, Turkey tried to buy a similar system only to retreat under both pressure from the U.S. and condemnation from NATO members. The United States pressured Turkey not to move forward with the purchase because the system in question was supposed to be sold through a state-run Chinese company. The U.S. had sanctioned the company for alleged missile sales to Iran.

This time around, Turkey has moved forward with the purchase through a Russian arms-export company, Rosoboronexport OJSC.

But what’s behind Turkey’s decision to buy now? The partial answer is that Ankara realizes its ability not only to challenge the U.S. and NATO, but also to send a message that Ankara intends to play a pivotal role in regional affairs. However, a complete answer is that Turkey is upset about U.S. support for the Kurdish militias in Syria, which Ankara perceives as a security threat given its long history of conflict with PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.

Many security analysts also agree that Turkey feels humiliated by the European Union for its refusal to grant Ankara membership. Yet, the EU bases its decision to block Turkey’s membership on the latter’s human rights abuses: jailing journalists, limiting political parties’ membership, and stifling freedom of expression, to name a few. Worst yet, the EU sees Turkey pursuing an assertive foreign policy marked by an increasingly autocratic style of governance.

The irony? Only few years ago, Turkey was perceived as a true secular model: a Muslim country with a democratic approach to governance.

Last month, diplomatic relations between Germany and Turkey were tense after Germany refused to extradite Turkish asylum seekers whom Ankara says were involved in a coup attempt last year. In response, Turkey refused to allow German lawmakers to visit German troops based in Incirlik military base in Turkey. In retaliation, Germany withdrew its troops from the main NATO base there. I see no reason for Turkey to lose sleep over that since it pursues its own interests. And that returns us to its decision to purchase Russia’s advanced S-400 missiles.

Make no mistake: the deal has its own challenges. The S-400 system is not built like NATO defense systems. Turkey will have to acquire the “know-how” to be able to copy and produce its own advanced system, something Russia is unwilling to share given the sensitivities of this technology. The Moscow-based analyst Makienko argues, "For Turkey to be able to copy the S-400 system, it would have to spend billions to create a whole new industry."

Of note: The sophistication of the S-400 lies in its ability to detect, track, and then destroy aircraft, drones, or missiles. It’s Russia’s most advanced integrated air-defense system, and can hit targets as far as 250 miles away. Russia has also agreed to sell the system to China and India.

So, where from here? This deal has two outcomes. First, Turkey will emerge politically stronger, allowing it to influence the regional political landscape to its favor. Second, noting Turkey's purchase, other countries (in the region and elsewhere) will be eager to acquire similar technology from Russia, thus circumventing sanctions imposed by the West in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea. Will this lead to a military buildup in a volatile area of the Middle East? The answer is yes.

My analysis: Along with Iran and Russia, Turkey will be managing the region’s affairs. To some, my prediction may be preposterous; to those apprised of recent developments in the region, it should make sense. After the failed coup attempt last year, Turkey embarked on an assertive foreign policy aimed at cementing its position as an influential regional player, pushing forward with its agenda—whatever it may consist of.

One other thing: It became evident to Turkey a few years back that neither the U.S. nor influential NATO members (Germany, France, and Britain) take Ankara’s security concerns and economic interests seriously. As a result, Turkey has decided to go it alone, wooing Russia militarily and Iran economically.

Turkey’s policies toward Washington no longer conform to what is expected of an ally. The U.S. therefore needs to evaluate where it stands on Turkey and decide how it intends to proceed. Turkey is convinced that it no longer needs to pursue a foreign policy that fulfills Washington’s expectations, but rather can construct a policy that allows it greater influence in the Middle East. Turkey's new direction responds to the sympathies of its Muslim majority while being attentive to the ongoing geopolitical shift in the Middle East away from the West and its allies.

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