Pentagon chief questions Turkey’s NATO loyalty after base threat

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper


By SELCAN HACAOGLU | Bloomberg | Published: December 17, 2019

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Turkey’s threats to close two critical NATO installations if it’s sanctioned for growing military ties to Russia raise questions about the country’s commitment to the Western alliance.

A day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of possible retaliation if the U.S. imposes penalties over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile system, the Pentagon chief suggested the country might have set itself on a collision course with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“This is something that the alliance would have to discuss, if the Turks are serious about this,” Esper told reporters on his plane Monday, according to the Defense Department’s website.

Erdogan denies his country, which has NATO’s second-largest military, is walking away from the alliance and says its purchase of weapons from Russia doesn’t weaken its role as a member. Yet that’s not how some in NATO see it, especially with Turkey set to sign an agreement with Russia to jointly produce missiles and to receive the know-how to develop its own defense systems.

Taken together, the moves are posing the latest challenge to a bloc that has survived turbulent times over several decades.

They are also taking a toll on Turkey’s financial markets. The lira dropped almost 1.5% since Erdogan’s remarks on Sunday night, trading at the lowest level in two months.

Strategically located between Europe and Asia, Turkey was a bulwark against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But NATO members are voicing concern about its cultivation of military ties with Russia. Last month, Ankara agreed to support the alliance’s plans to defend Baltic states only after receiving assurances that U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces will be labeled a threat to Turkey.

The standoff intensified with Erdogan’s threat to shutter an early-warning radar at Kurecik and Incirlik Air Base, used by the Pentagon to store tactical nuclear weapons and to conduct strikes against Islamic State.

“The issue here is — is, once again — what is Turkey’s direction with regard to the NATO alliance,” said Esper, citing the S-400 missile deal and the holding-up of NATO plans for the defense of Europe. Turkey has the right to decide if it wants to house NATO bases or foreign troops, he said. “I think this becomes an alliance matter, and their commitment to the alliance,” Esper said.

Turkey appears undeterred by the prospect of U.S. sanctions and plans to acquire a second S-400 battery and to pursue a joint-development agreement in order to be able to produce its own sophisticated ballistic missiles. An accord “is just around the corner,” Ismail Demir, head of Turkey’s top defense procurement body, known as SSB, said Friday.

The agreements with Russian President Vladimir Putin reflect Ankara’s desire for an increasingly independent role in regional policies as it sees power shifting away from the U.S. and Europe, as well as its dependence on Russia’s support in neighboring Syria as well as its supplies of natural gas.

Chief among U.S. concerns is that the S-400 system could be used to collect intelligence on the stealth capabilities of the U.S. F-35 fighter jet, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., that Turkey has helped to build and wants to purchase.

President Donald Trump so far has refrained from using the so-called CAATSA, legislation that allows the U.S. president to slap sanctions on any country that makes a sizable arms purchase from Russia. But a committee of the Senate recently approved a bill that includes a provision to enforce CAATSA, which could freeze Turkish assets, restrict visas and limit access to credit as punishments.

That could spell further trouble for Turkey’s economy, which is only recovering from a recession that followed a crash in the lira after a diplomatic spat with Washington last year.

Erdogan says Turkey’s Western allies failed to provide his country with the necessary defense against missile threats from neighboring Iran, Iraq and Syria. He’s insisted that the S-400s are already part of Turkey’s arsenal, while suggesting he and Trump might find enough common ground to enable Turkey to add U.S. Patriot batteries to its armory. However, it’s not clear whether U.S. lawmakers would let the sale go through.

Turkey and the U.S. have overcome previous rounds of friction, including when Ankara refused to host U.S. troops for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While there are concerns that this time, ties between the two countries might be harmed irrevocably, the stakes are huge and that could induce caution.

The U.S. would risk losing a crucial partner in the volatile Middle East, while Turkey could face shedding its strongest Western ally and main weapons supplier.