S-400 politics

July 18, 2019 22:26
3 minute read.
TURKISH PRESIDENT Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk last y

TURKISH PRESIDENT Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk last year. (photo credit: REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS)

Turkey is brazenly accepting delivery of the Russian S-400 air defense system, despite Washington’s warnings over the past year. Based on a 2017 deal, Turkey, which is a member of NATO and has historically been a close ally of the US and Western powers, has sought to acquire advanced Russian military technology. This illustrates its increasing drift into an alliance with Moscow.

The US has warned Turkey over the S-400. However, not only is Ankara adamant about purchasing the system, but the Turkish media is openly bragging about its arrival. On July 17, Turkey’s Daily Sabah reported that more components of the system arrived from Russia at Murted Air Base. Turkey’s defense ministry shared a photo of the hardware.

Turkey says the 12th plane carrying the system has arrived. Turkish personnel are already training in Russia and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that, with the grace of God, the system will be operational by April 2020.

Turkey is a partner with the US in the F-35 program, and has played a key role since 1999 in developing and supplying hundreds of parts for the plane, according to The National Interest. The US has said that the acquisition of the S-400 system undermines the capabilities of the F-35 and thus appears be giving Turkey a choice between the two.

But the controversy is much bigger than just plane parts. It represents a calculated, strategic shift by Turkey away from the US and the West. This shift has been on display for more than a decade, despite denial from many Western policymakers.

In 2010, Turkey did tamp down tensions as the Mavi Marmara – carrying some 600 activists – set sail for Gaza in an unprecedented attempt to bring hundreds of foreign activists to the Strip without going through Israeli security checks. It would be tantamount to Israel hosting a ship of anti-Turkish activists and letting it sail to Afrin in northern Syria, or another area that is hostile to Turkey and in a controversial dispute with it.

However, the Marmara incident was not viewed at the time as evidence for Turkey’s drift away from a key player in the US alliance system. We now understand that although Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia have all been key pillars of US policy in the Middle East, Turkey’s role is now being eroded – and from the top down. Although in recent Istanbul municipal elections, many voted in support of a more centrist candidate from the opposition Republican People’s Party, the government in Turkey has sought to spurn the US and embrace a more right-wing, Islamic and nationalistic agenda.

The S-400 delivery is a major victory for Russia. If it was only about Moscow seeking influence through defense sales, the S-400 would not be as symbolic. But, it is Ankara’s worldview that represents the greater challenge for the region. Turkey has embraced the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, groups that are viscerally hostile to Israel. A Hamas member recently called to kill Jews worldwide.

The 1988 Hamas charter is a vicious, antisemitic document embracing conspiracies, hate and the annihilation of Israel through holy war. This hatred of Jews is also ingrained into Muslim Brotherhood programming. Although sometimes hidden for the sake of public image, it’s often just beneath the surface.

Despite Ankara’s leadership claiming to be against antisemitism and that the country was historically a place of shelter for Jews during Ottoman times, the fact is that there is rising animosity to Jews in sectors of Turkey. Furthermore, whenever Israel-Palestinian tensions flare, Turkey has sought to make it an Islamic cause, embracing Jerusalem and other issues through a pan-Islamic lens. This is a dangerous and toxic mix, adding religious fuel to the fire rather than seeking to mollify such situations.

Ankara’s drifting away from Washington calls into question the larger role that it will play in the region. Turkey is a vibrant and diverse country, which has historic ties to Israel and the West. But it cannot have it both ways. Erdogan needs to make a decision: Will Turkey side with the US or not? That is what is at stake.

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