(June 20, 2019 / JNS) As is often the case, Washington is again fixated on a serious but short-term dispute while it misses a long-term problem with long-term implications. While the Trump administration’s hard line with major trading partners China and Mexico has captured the spotlight, a NATO ally is making an unmistakable and possibly irreversible turn away from the West and into the Kremlin’s grasp.
In the latest in a long string of breaches of trust, Turkey has purchased Russia’s advanced S-400 missile-defense system and put U.S. interests at risk. If delivered, the Trump administration should respond swiftly, severely and unequivocally to demonstrate that reorienting militarily towards Russia is unacceptable.
Thankfully, U.S. President Donald Trump has options available to punish Turkey, which no longer behaves as a strategic partner or an ally. Chief among them would be the imposition of sanctions pursuant to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA) and formal exclusion from the Pentagon’s F-35 multirole fighter program.
The purchase of the Russian S-400 and co-location with the American F-35 poses a great risk to the integrity of the fifth-generation fighter jet—not only for the United States but for partner nations, such as Israel, who are already flying the F-35. Turkish soldiers, who are in Russia receiving training on the S-400 system, would be feeding sensitive information on the fighter jet into a Russian system. Moscow would no doubt exploit this information and pass on vital data to American and Israeli adversaries.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has guided a hard turn to Russia and its partner, Iran, in recent years. For the United States, NATO and major non-NATO allies, such as Israel, his decision to purchase the S-400 is entirely aligned with his behavior. And the threat Turkey poses to America and its allies is clear.
Whether siding with Moscow over the Nicolás Maduro regime or helping Iran engage in a massive multi-billion-dollar Iran sanctions evasion scheme, Erdoğan has made a point of continuously undermining U.S. interests. His government has yet to finalize a settlement for the fine expected against state-owned Halkbank stemming from its role in helping Iran evade sanctions between 2013 and 2014. And while Turkey seems to be complying with current U.S. sanctions on Iran, Erdoğan has suggested that Turkey could go back to its old ways.
Erdoğan and those around him have also not been shy about doing business with terror groups. Ankara’s support for the terrorist group Hamas, including harboring known operatives and allowing the group to run an office out of Istanbul, is deeply problematic. At the height of the Islamic State’s power, it was Turkey that harbored key ISIS financiers and bought their black-market oil.
Domestically, the Erdoğan government has led Turkey down a path of oppression for its civil society and religious institutions. Turkey is rated as “not free” in Freedom House’s latest annual report. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has once again cited Turkey for embracing “anti-Semitism in the form of public statements … and pro-government newspapers and media outlets propagated hate speech directed against both Christians and Jews.” The Turkish government also unjustly held Pastor Andrew Brunson for more than two years. Only after ever increasing economic pressure and a barrage of bipartisan anger from Congress did Erdoğan let him go.
Ankara has been given many chances to turn back from rupturing the relationship but has consistently refused substantive overtures. Instead, Erdoğan believes that ultimately, he will get all he wants out of his relationship with the United States without suffering a breach in that relationship. He needs to disabused of this fantasy.
When presidents Trump and Erdoğan meet later this month, the United States should make it clear that if Erdoğan wishes to continue to take Turkey down an adversarial path, a wider strategic break is coming—one that will hit Turkey with tremendous force and plunge its economy into further disrepair. The West, led by Trump, should use its economic leverage to show Ankara the price it will pay unless it changes course, changes its behaviors and forsakes alliances with our adversaries.
Boris Zilberman is the director of public policy and strategy at the Christians United for Israel Action Fund.