At the G20 meeting held at Osaka, Japan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with US President Donald Trump on June 29th. This was their first face-to-face encounter this year and it was a continuation of the ongoing dialogue they have maintained since Trump became president, with the presidents maintaining close contacts through their frequent telephone conversations, the most recent of which was on May 29th.
This meeting was of much importance to Erdoğan because of the risk of sanctions being imposed because of Turkey’ s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system which is scheduled to be delivered to Turkey in July. He had given the impression that he would be able to convince Trump not to proceed with any sanctions. Prior to their meeting, Erdogan stressed “the strategic partnership between the two countries” along with his “conviction that this solidarity would be maintained.”
While Trump had not commented publicly on this issue, there had been many warnings by administration officials, including former acting Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan and the current acting Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, in addition to growing calls from the US Congress, relating to the possibility of the suspension of Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 fighter program along with its acquisition of 116 of the advanced fighter jet, as well as the imposition of secondary sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
Undeterred by the warnings, Erdogan continued to reaffirm Turkey’s irrevocable commitment to proceed with the purchase, denounced threats of action against an ally by US officials, and expressed confidence that the US president would block possible sanctions. On June 20th, Erdogan said, “our relations with Trump are very different to those below him. Consequently, I give zero chance to the possibility of the implementation of sanctions”, and as he was leaving Ankara for the G20 on June 26th, he said, “I never got the impression in meetings with Trump that there might be sanctions.”
The meeting started very cordially with Trump flattering Erdoğan, stating that it was “an honour to be with a friend, somebody I have become very close to” and who was “doing a very good job.” While he claimed that their meeting would focus on trade, Trump confirmed in response to a question that the S-400 issue would be discussed as it was “a problem, no question about it.” Trump nevertheless admitted that “it was a complicated situation because the President (Erdogan) was not allowed to buy the (US) Patriot missiles . . . until after he made a deal to buy other missiles.” He continued by saying “you can’t do business that way. It’s not good . . . He is a NATO member, he’s somebody that I have become friendly with. I don’t think he was treated fairly.” Just before the press left the room, Trump added “We’re looking at different solutions. It’s a problem, there’s no question about it”.
The meeting had an awkward format and looked rather surreal whereby 10 officials from each side sat in chairs facing each other with Trump and Erdoğan sitting close to each other at the end of these two rows of officials ın a more comfortable fashion with translators behind them. Trump fondly characterised the members of the Turkish Cabinet who accompanied Erdoğan as straight out of “central casting. There’s no Hollywood set where you could produce people who looked like that,”
In his press conference after the meeting, in his response to the question as to whether Turkey would face sanctions if it went ahead with the S-400 purchase, Trump preferred to first answer with a praise of Erdogan. He referred to Erdoğan as “a tough cookie,” that “He is tough, but I get along with him . . . He could be an ally if he respected the president and he’s got a big army.” Trump also emphasised that the release last year by Turkey of American pastor Andrew Brunson as a positive factor in their relationship by saying, “He gave me our pastor back. Nobody else could get him back . . . I called him and after a very short period of time, Pastor Brunson was standing in the Oval Office with me.”
Returning to the question regarding the S-400 purchase by Turkey, Trump again asserted that Erdogan had turned to the S-400 only because the Obama administration would not sell Patriots to him. Trump said, “He kept wanting to buy it, they kept saying no, no, no . . . he needed it for defence, so he went to Russia and bought the S-400.” He continued, “As soon as he bought it, people went back to him from our country and they said, ‘Listen, we don’t want you to use that system, because it’s not the NATO system’, et cetera, et cetera. ‘Do us a favour—we’ll sell you the Patriot.’ He said, ‘It’s too late. I already bought it.’ There was nothing he could do; he had already bought it.”
Trump added that Erdoğan had meanwhile bought over a hundred F-35’s with options for more, and is now expecting delivery. Trump said that “He’s paid a tremendous amount of money, up front to Lockheed—our company, our jobs, everything” and that, “And now they’re saying he’s using the S-400 system, which is incompatible with our system, and if you use the S-400 system, Russia and other people can gain access into the genius of the F-35 . . . Not from the standpoint of compatibility, but from our standpoint, national security wise.”
Trump clearly appeared to have effectively absolved Erdogan from blame for the crisis while pointing the finger directly at the previous administration. He did not however mention the warnings from senior members of his administration, as well as Congress, that Turkey could not have the F-35 if it obtained the S-400. At the end of the press conference, he said that “So it’s a mess and honestly it’s not really Erdogan’s fault. So now we have breaking news. ‘Donald Trump loves Turkey. He loves Turkey. Donald Trump is on the side of Turkey instead of the United . . .’ No, I’m not.”
Erdoğan was obviously pleased with the personal support he received from Trump during their meeting, after which, in his own press conference, he reiterated that the S-400 was a done deal and declared that he had “heard directly from him that no such action would occur.” Erdoğan added that “The statements coming from those below the President do not conform with his approach, but I am confident that they will not be able to undermine our bilateral relationship and we are continuing on our path with determination.” Erdogan said that Turkey was not just a buyer but also a co-producer of the F-35’s, had already paid USD 1.4 billion and had received delivery in the US of four of the 116 planes ordered, and now expecting delivery of all of them. He made a further point that Turkey was proceeding with the planned purchase of 100 Boeing commercial planes even despite the S-400 controversy.
Erdogan praised Trump as “a trustworthy interlocutor” and said that he had informed the US president that this was the reason why he admired him. He described the atmosphere at their meeting as “very positive,” with Trump being very “supportive on the S-400 and F-35 issue”. Erdoğan reported that Trump had said that “you are right about the S-400’s”, that the threatened non-delivery of the F-35’s was “unfair”, and that Trump was “confident we will pass this stage without any difficulties whatsoever.”
The meeting between Trump and Erdoğan was clearly positive, and not only vindicated the S-400 purchase in light of the apparent behaviour of the Obama administration, but also gave Erdoğan great hope that sanctions will not be imposed. However, Trump did not go ahead with an outright announcement that sanctions would not be imposed and no joint statement to this effect emerged from the meeting.
The sense of optimism emerging from Osaka helped the Turkish lira gain against the US dollar on the first trading day after the G20, and Erdoğan returned to Turkey in a triumphant mood.
The reality of the situation is nonetheless very different. The US administration is already in the process of cutting Turkey’s involvement in the F-35, and it remains to be seen if and how Trump will intervene to stop it. As far back as April, the U.S. Department of Defence confirmed that the F-35s transferred to Turkey but still on U.S. soil would not be delivered and announced that it would look for alternative suppliers to Turkish defence companies participating in F-35 production. Spokesperson Charles Summers stated categorically on April 1st that “The U.S. has been clear that Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 is unacceptable . . . Should Turkey procure the S-400, their continued participation in the F-35 program is at risk.”
In his strongly-worded letter to his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar on June 6th, Shanahan reiterated that “Turkey will not receive the F-35 if it takes delivery of the S-400” and warned that, along with the indefinite suspension of F-35 material deliveries, the United States would take a series of actions designed to “suspend Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program by July 31st.” A concrete step to that end was undertaken on June 12th, when Turkey was excluded from the F-35 program CEO roundtable meeting in Washington. On June 25th, Esper summarized the policy en route to a meeting with Akar in Brussels by saying, “If Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400, they will not receive the F-35. It's that simple.”
Significantly, Shanahan had also drawn attention to separate sanctions emanating from CAATSA. This message was reinforced by Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord on June 17th who said, "Everything outside of the F-35 from a defence perspective…would be subject to CAATSA sanctions.” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs Katie Wheelbarger underlined the pressure exerted on the administration by Congress on May 30th when she said, “If we don't do the sanctions, they said they will just pass another law and make us do it.”
Under CAATSA, Trump is required to impose five or more secondary sanctions from a list of 12 on entities and individuals engaged in “significant transactions” with Russian defence and intelligence companies on its list, which includes Rosoboronexport, the manufacturer of the S-400. Although Trump could delay the application of sanctions by submitting to Congress “a written determination that the waiver is in the vital national security interests of the United States” or delay imposition by 180 days at a time by certifying that the entity is “substantially reducing the number of significant transactions,” it is far from clear whether this would be acceptable to Congress.
Reacting negatively to reports about the Trump-Erdogan meeting in an interview from Istanbul on June 30th, Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s strongest supporters, said that he doubted whether Trump had actually told Erdogan that he would find a way around sanctions. Graham continued “It's impossible under our law . . . we also, a couple of days ago, passed legislation banning the sale of the F-35 to Turkey if they activate the Russian S-400 missile battery. There's no way we're going to transfer to Turkey the F-35 technology and let them buy a Russian missile battery at the same time . . . under our law, there is no discretion.” It is worth noting that, in addition to CAATSA, there are two spending bills and three other bills working their way through Congress with specific provisions on stopping the transfer of the F-35’s once Turkey receives the S-400’s.
On July 3rd, Reuters reported Defence Department Spokesperson Mike Andrews as saying “nothing has changed . . . Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air and missile defence system is incompatible with the F-35 program. Turkey will not be permitted to have both systems.” The same article quoted an unnamed State Department spokeswoman saying, “The U.S. has consistently and clearly stated that Turkey will face very real and negative consequences if it proceeds with its S-400 acquisition, including suspension of procurement and industrial participation in the F-35 program and exposure to sanctions under CAATSA.” The two statements, which were made after Trump’s return to Washington, undercut Trump’s comments in Osaka.
Beyond his obvious desire to ensure a good meeting with Erdogan, it is entirely possible that Trump, who has a reputation for not reading briefing notes prior to meetings with foreign leaders, may not have been fully aware of the limits of his options to protect Turkey from sanctions. Needless to say, his inability or reluctance to intervene effectively in shaping policy on this issue, after having privately and publicly reinforced Erdogan’s conviction that he would do so, would inevitably aggravate the disappointment and sense of grievance on the Turkish side. Given his own control over all aspects of national security policy, Erdogan would find it difficult to understand why Trump failed to exercise similar control.
The US -Turkish agenda has long been burdened by a number of unresolved bilateral issues, most notably the case of Fethullah Gülen, the US based Muslim cleric whose extradition has been repeatedly demanded by Ankara for allegedly masterminding the failed coup attempt of July 15th, 2016 against Erdoğan, and US cooperation in northern Syria with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces, which Turkey identifies as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Trump’s had failed to follow through on his promise to Erdoğan last December to withdraw all US troops from north-eastern Syria, thus effectively disengaging from the YPG and clearing the way for a Turkish military operation or to finalize the US -Turkish roadmap relating to Manbij in north-western Syria. There are also an unknown number of other Americans, believed to be Muslims, who remain in Turkish prisons after being swept up in a crackdown following the 2016 failed coup attempt. Turkish employees at US consulates in Turkey have also been arrested. On June, 25th, a court freed one of those workers, Nazmi Mete Cantürk, from house arrest while his and his family’s trial on coup-related charges continues. Another court on June 28th on the other hand refused to free Metin Topuz, who worked for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and has been in jail since 2017 on similar charges. Trump introduced sanctions against Turkey last year to free the American pastor Andrew Brunson, but he does seem overtly concerned about Turkey’s record on democratic rights under Erdogan’s authoritarian style of rule.
However, at the heart of the diplomatic entanglement over the S-400s is Washington’s fear that Turkey, a member of NATO since 1952, is breaking free of US influence for a new partnership with Russia. Erdogan’s growing proximity to Putin coincides with a broader erosion in Turkey’s Western orientation.
Though Erdoğan returned victorious to Turkey from G20 and was loudly applauded in the Turkish press, the S-400 crisis is far from over. Despite Trump’s good intentions, his hands are largely tied, and this would appear to be another case where he is out of touch with what is really going on around him. The Turkish economy is still in deep recession with a highly volatile currency, high interest rates, high employment, high private sector debt levels, diminishing Central Bank reserves, and a weakening banking sector. New sanctions imposed by the US would send the Turkish lira into another nose dive, and cause the Turkish economy to plummet into a downward spiral from which it will not easily recover.