US-Turkish Relations Could Warm Up; Turkey Should Pledge No Russian Arms

US-Turkish relations seem to be trending in a more positive direction because Turkey has been forced to seek help from NATO and Washington against its Syrian and Russian foes in the fighting around Idlib.

Diplomatic tensions between the United States and Turkey reached a high point last year when Ankara launched a military invasion into northern Syria, which Defense Secretary Mark Esper later described as having undermined American gains against the Islamic State and threatened regional security.

Then, dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed last month in an attack by Syrian artillery and Russian aircraft. Predictably, Russia denied its involvement and Turkey’s defense minister expressed frustration that the attack transpired even though the “locations of [Turkish] troops had been coordinated with Russian officials in the field.” He did stop short of accusing Moscow outright.

Idlib holds tremendous symbolic and strategic value for Russia and for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Over the last nine years, the city has been a safe haven for refugees displaced from the rest of Syria and is now the last bastion of the anti-government uprising. Already, over 4.1 million Syrians have trekked across the Syrian-Turkish border. Should Idlib fall, Ankara could find itself having to host another 1.3 million refugees.

US Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield has remarked that the prospect of another million-plus refugee exodus is “a self-identified existential challenge” for Turkey. This, Satterfield elaborated, was precisely the aim of Syria and Russia’s offensive against Idlib: to knock Turkey out of the war en route to securing a military victory for Assad. President Putin hopes that triumphing in Idlib will allow him to scale back or even end Moscow’s increasingly expensive military commitment to its Middle Eastern client state.

After the attack on its soldiers, Turkey requested support from NATO under Article 4, the treaty provision that enables any alliance member the right to “request consultations whenever, in [their] opinion…their territorial integrity, political independence, or security is threatened.” While NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the “indiscriminate air strikes by the Syrian regime and Russia” and expressed “full solidarity” with Turkey’s plight, the situation does not meet NATO’s ‘mutuality’ standard so direct military support will not be forthcoming.

One of the factors behind this relatively cool response must have been the fact that Turkey has spent the last several years often operating against NATO interests. This has ranged from its refusal to support NATO’s defense plan for Poland and the Baltics, as a ham-handed attempt to secure assistance for its war against Kurdish forces in Syria, to threats that it might review the status of important NATO military facilities located in Turkey.

But Ankara started singing a very different tune this year as the country celebrated the 68th anniversary of its ascension to NATO. The prevailing discourse in Turkey had blamed NATO for shackling Ankara’s pursuit of its national interests; but in February, the Turkish Foreign Ministry declared that it was “among [NATO’s] top contributing allies.”

This sudden change of heart has more do with Turkish officials realizing that they need help after the Russian attacks. The ceasefire negotiated between Moscow and Ankara in early March may not last long even though Russia is currently holding talks with Syria to enforce it.

Turkey is trying to convince the United States to support its military efforts more directly. Turkey has requested the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Syria and wants Washington to deploy additional Patriot missile batteries on its southern borders.

While both ideas have won support from US Special Envoy for Syria Ambassador James Jeffrey, a State Department official has ruled out any “military moves by American units.” The official added the US could provide information sharing and equipment. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley expressed a similar sentiment when he testified that he was unaware of any “intent [or] plans to reengage in the Syrian civil war, [or] to put troops back on the Syrian-Turkish border.”

In this context, Turkey’s request for more Patriot missiles could represent an opportunity to improve Ankara’s relationship with NATO, while also driving a deeper wedge into its relationship with Russia.

For this to happen, President Erdogan would need to deactivate and return Russia’s S-400 air defense system that it purchased and deployed last year in the face of open American displeasure. It could also open the door to discussions about welcoming Turkey back into the F-35 program.

The United States should insist on receiving additional commitments from Turkey that will help ensure it remains a loyal NATO ally moving forward, such as a declared mortarium on purchasing Russian weapons or systems. Washington should also impress upon Ankara that its hostile foreign policy towards its European and Eastern Mediterranean neighbors is counterproductive and will result in the US beginning to relocate its military assets away from Turkish soil.

This combination of different types of leverage will be necessary to turn into reality the optimistic remarks by US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson that she hopes “President Erdogan will see that we are the ally of their past and their future.”

Gen Charles Wald, USAF (ret.) is former deputy commander of U.S. European Command. He is a Distinguished Fellow and co-chair of the Eastern Mediterranean Policy Project at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.

Originally published in Breaking Defense