The tale of Turkey and the lost Patriots - analysis

As Ankara and Washington hurtle toward a head-on collision like two speeding locomotives in the wake of the S-400 purchase, two former senior Pentagon officials detail how a long-discussed missile deal between the NATO allies fell through, in an analysis for War on the Rocks. 

“As both capitals struggle to pull the brake, it’s important to understand the backstory about one issue caught up in the impending train wreck: the long-suffering Patriot air and missile defence deal,” Jim Townsend, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy, and Rachel Ellehuus, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former principal director for European and NATO policy in the Pentagon, wrote on Monday. 

Providing Turkey with air and missile defences has been a key Western mission since the 1990-91 Gulf War, when Turkey asked NATO to send air defences to protect from possible SCUD missile strikes from Saddam Hussein,  and the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands heeded the call with Patriot systems, according to the authors. 

“Over time, Turkey began to look for ways to buy its own missile defense system and also to use that  procurement to build up its own capacity to manufacture and sell an air and missile defence system,” the authors said. 

With Patriot-producer Raytheon, the U.S. Defence Department put together a series of sales packages between 2009 and 2018 that moved closer to meeting the Turkish technology transfer and shared production demands, according to Townsend and Ellehuus.  

In 2013, as the two sides neared a deal, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became more involved in the negotiations, and the talks were soon engulfed in the geopolitical competition brought on by the Syrian conflict.

Russian troops arrived in Syria in 2015 to support their ally, Bashar Assad, and that November Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft that reportedly entered Turkish airspace. “Rather than spoil his efforts to split the Turks off from the West and to avoid war, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin — who had been wooing his fellow autocrat Erdoğan for years — limited the Russian reaction to economic sanctions against Turkey,” the authors said. 

By this time, Washington had begun working with Syrian Kurdish militants to fight the Islamic State (ISIS), even though Ankara viewed the Kurds as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey for decades and is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. 

The United States sent its Patriot system from Turkey’s Syrian border to Germany for maintenance. “Ankara saw this as further proof that America could not be trusted,” the authors said.

Finally, when Washington refused to extradite the man Ankara saw as behind a failed 2016 coup, Putin stepped in and offered the S-400 missile defence system to Turkey. Erdoğan accepted the offer in September 2017, solidifying relations with Putin to protect Turkey’s interests in Syria and making the United States pay for protecting the Kurds and the alleged coup plotter. 

One U.S. official after another warned Turkey of sanctions for the S-400 and of losing its U.S. F-35 fighter jets. The S-400 systems began arriving in Turkey on July 12, and the country was expelled from the F-35 programme five days later. 

Now comes the question of sanctions, about which Trump is expected to make an announcement as early as this week.  

“The Patriot deal with Turkey was an unhappy victim of bigger geopolitical considerations by Russia and Turkey,” said Townsend and Ellehuus. “If a solution can’t be found, these two trains will likely collide, which will be a tragedy for the United States, Turkey, and NATO, and another easy victory for Putin.”