Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 August 2019

Turkey risks sanctions if no progress is made on missile purchase when Trump meets Erdogan

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar met US envoy for Syria James Jeffrey in Brussels on Thursday

US President Donald Trump and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will make a last ditch effort in their meeting on Saturday to avoid a looming crisis over Ankara’s acquisition of the S-400 Russian missile defence system. AFP
US President Donald Trump and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will make a last ditch effort in their meeting on Saturday to avoid a looming crisis over Ankara’s acquisition of the S-400 Russian missile defence system. AFP

All eyes are on the G20 summit in Osaka where US President Donald Trump and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet on Saturday to avert a crisis over Ankara acquiring the S-400 Russian missile defence system.

Mr Erdogan appeared hopeful that a breakthrough can be reached to spare Turkey the brunt of new US sanctions over its deal with Moscow.

"I believe my meeting with US President Trump during the G20 summit will be important for eliminating the deadlock in our bilateral relations and strengthening our co-operation," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

A Congressional process will automatically impose sanctions when the S-400 is delivered to US Nato ally Turkey in two weeks, but Mr Erdogan seemed confident.

"I don't know if Nato countries began to impose sanctions on each other," he said. "I did not receive this impression during my contact with Mr Trump."

In Brussels, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar met the US special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, on Thursday to try to make progress on another stalemate – establishing a safe zone in northern Syria.

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A State Department official told The National that the two “discussed the latest developments in Syria, including ongoing violence in Idlib, and progress in addressing stability and security in northeast Syria and the concept of a safe zone along the Turkey-Syria border.”

Despite Mr Erdogan’s optimism, experts who follow US-Turkish relations said there was shrinking room for progress.

They said Congressional efforts were well under way to prepare for sanctions if the S-400 were delivered to Turkey.

Only a delay in that delivery or canceling the purchase could prevent such an outcome, a US official said.

This week, Russian arms exporter Alexander Mikheev said Moscow received the multibillion-dollar payment for the S-400 from Turkey.

Mr Erdogan could convince the US President to veto sanctions, more than two thirds of Congress support them, which is enough to override Mr Trump.

This month, the US government suspended training for Turkish pilots on F-35 jets and ordered the termination of Ankara’s participation in the F-35 programme by the end of July if the Turkish government did not back down from its deal with Moscow.

“If Turkey procures the S-400, as we discussed during our call on May 28, our two countries must develop a plan to discontinue Turkey's participation in the F-35 program,” former acting defence secretary Patrick Shanahan wrote in a letter to Mr Akar.

His successor, Mark Esper, repeated the same warning after his meeting with the Turkish minister on Wednesday in Brussels.

Another Senate bill under consideration would block F-35 deliveries to Turkey and remove it from the production consortium.

The US House of Representatives is considering a similar bill to the Senate, called the Protecting Nato Skies Act of 2019.

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, did not share Mr Erdogan’s optimism.

“We are on the precipice of sanctions,” Mr Stein told The National.

“Turkey is hoping that Mr Trump will either waive sanctions or suspend implementation.

"That seems unlikely and in either case it won’t allow for the transfer of the F-35 jets to Ankara."

Turkey has been a member of the Joint Strike Fighter programme since 2002, and has at least 100 F-35 fighters on order from the US.

Mr Stein’s warned that both sides were running out of time.

He said Mr Jeffrey “was trying to reach agreement on the safe zone before sanctions to preserve an area of co-operation before sanctions come in".

Nicholas Danforth, of the German Marshall Fund, said that on Syria “both sides are at least pretending an agreement is still possible, but on the S-400s, it is proving to be difficult".

Mr Danforth said he did not foresee a major breakthrough from the G20 meeting.

“Most likely a few days of confusion as everyone tries to parse unclear and conflicting reports from the meeting, followed by the growing realisation that sanctions are coming.”

Updated: June 28, 2019 10:48 AM

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