Missile Defense

Turkey's Arms Deal Is a Slap Against Merkel, Trump

Headed to Turkey: Russian S-400 missiles. Picture source: Reuters

Germany has tried to flex its political muscle with Turkey, warning German firms against doing business with Turkish companies, blocking talks with the European Union on a new customs union for Ankara, even threatening to embargo arms sales to its NATO ally.

But Germany’s get tough policy with Ankara has not worked out as planned. In a slap aimed primarily at Germany and the United States, Turkey announced Tuesday that it has purchased an air defense missile system from Russia, despite opposition from its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted by the newspaper Hürriyet as saying that Turkey had already paid a deposit for delivery of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, estimated to cost €2.09 billion ($2.5 billion).

“Turkey is clearly signaling its displeasure with the United States and its European NATO allies such as Germany.”

Fadi Hakura, Turkey expert, Royal Institute of International Affairs in London

Mr. Erdogan rejected criticism that the missile system would not be able to function within the defense umbrella of the 29-nation NATO, of which Turkey is a member. “It’s us who will make decisions regarding our independence,” Mr. Erdogan was quoted as having said. “We are responsible for taking security measures for the defense of our country. We’ll save ourselves if we face difficulties in procuring defense systems.”

The United States and Germany had stationed Patriot missile batteries in Turkey along the Syrian border, but they were withdrawn as relations soured. Germany has also pulled troops from the country. The US has offered to sell Turkey Patriot missiles instead but they have been unable to agree on a price.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in an interview Monday confirmed his country has imposed a virtual arms embargo on its NATO ally, suspending all major requests except for systems that Germany is obligated to provide under the NATO alliance. But Ms. Merkel appeared to be backpedalling already a day later, telling NDR television that Germany would decide on arms sales requests from Turkey on a case-by-case basis.

Germany has accused the Ankara regime of human rights violations for detaining German nationals, including two journalists, in the wake of a military coup in July, 2016. Tensions have also been high as Mr. Erdogan has sought to galvanize the large Turkish community based in Germany. But Turkey hasn’t been shy about responding to any German efforts at convincing it to change course.

“Turkey is clearly signaling its displeasure with the United States and its European NATO allies such as Germany,” said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. “Turkey is now in a bitter feud with Germany because of its refusal to allow Erdogan to hold public rallies among the Turkish diaspora in Germany during the campaign for passage of a new constitution.”

In the interview with Handelsblatt on Monday, before the deal with Moscow was disclosed, Mr. Gabriel said that in the past, Turkey was not excluded from NATO because Western nations did not want to push Ankara into the arms of Russia. “And that is the case today. Apart from this, it would be unimportant.”

Mr. Gabriel went on to say that Germany has had relations with Turkey long before Mr. Erdogan came to power and said his country remains close with the Turkish people. “We have a conflict with the government of Turkey, but not with the Turks. He wishes that he could position us against each other. And we have to do everything we can to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

But he also praised Turkey for its efforts to control the flow of Syrian refugees during the recent crisis. “Whatever one criticizes Turkey for, they take far more refugees than Europe does – nearly three million up to now,” Mr. Gabriel said. The EU reached a €3-billion aid deal with Turkey last year to stem the flow of refugees into Europe.

Turkey still depends economically on the West.

Ms. Merkel said last week that it was clear Turkey will never be a member of the European Union, despite nearly two decades of negotiations. She also called off talks on renewing Turkey’s customs union with the EU. But her comments Tuesday walking back the arms embargo suggest a policy difference with Foreign Minister Gabriel, who despite being in a coalition government with the chancellor is also a member of the Social Democratic party that is challenging Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrats in elections for a new government September 24.

Turkey is angry at Germany for granting asylum to between 200 and 300 Turkish citizens who Mr. Erdogan and his supporters believe took part in the coup against him, according to Mr. Hakura. He said Mr. Erdogan was furious when the head of the BND German Intelligence Agency, Bruno Kahl, made a public statement that Turkey had failed to convince the German government that US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen was behind the coup attempt – and even alerted the 300 individuals that they were on a Turkish watchlist. Mr. Kahl said the Gulen organization is a “civil association that aims to provide further religious and secular education.”

By contrast, the missile sale represents a sharp turnabout in Turkey’s relations with Russia. Only two years ago, Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian air force plane patrolling over Syria that had strayed close to the Turkish border. While Moscow broke off relations over that incident, Turkey made peace overtures that were eventually accepted by the Kremlin and relations began to improve.

But Turkey still depends economically on the West. Mr. Hakura noted that 70 percent of financial flows and around half of its foreign trade come from Western Europe. That is something Russia, facing its own economic troubles, might find more difficult to replace than missiles.

Charles Wallace is an editor with Handelsblatt Global based in New York. To contact the author: c.wallace@extern.handelsblatt.com

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