There could be no better illustration of America’s fading hegemony on the global stage than a NATO ally engaging in defense cooperation with NATO’s primary rival, Russia, and to do so in the face of strong opposition from NATO and its biggest military power, the US. The fact that Turkey has remained undeterred by threats of US sanctions for buying Russian weapons shows how steep the fall of US hegemony has been over the last decade or so. The US suffered a major failure in Syria and it is trying hard to negotiate its way out of Afghanistan after wasting over a trillion dollars and thousands of innocent lives. Now it has failed badly in forcing its erstwhile ‘junior partner’ into not buying Russia’s premier air defense system, even though top US officials, such as Mike Pompeo, have been loud and clear about the prospect of sanctions Ankara may face for its disobedience. Speaking mostly for Israeli lobbies, Pompeo has made it clear to the Washington Post that the “law requires that there be sanctions and I’m confident that we will comply with the law and President Trump will comply with the law”. This didn’t work on Turkey of course, nor will Trump’s July 17 decision about excluding Turkey altogether from the F-35 programme.
While Turkey remains steadfast on its decision to acquire Russia’s S-400 — which is nothing short of a fair exercise of its sovereignty and national interests - the US decision marks an inflection point in US—Turkey relations, a situation that can equally hit US interests hard in the Middle East. The US, therefore, needs to tread carefully when it comes to ‘punishing’ Turkey. The White House statement, however, seems unmindful of the potential blowback its aggression may cause. It stated that, “accepting the S-400 undermines the commitments all of the NATO Allies made to each other to move away from the Russian systems. This will have detrimental impacts on Turkish interoperability with the Alliance.” The statement also said cooperation with Turkey would continue, albeit in the shadow of the conditions and “constraints” created by the purchase of S-400. In other words, this cooperation is most likely to remain negligible at best.
While Turkey may escape sanctions as Trump has recently announced to Erdogan on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Japan, there is no gainsaying that slamming doors of cooperation hard on Turkey will have significant consequences for the region.
If push comes to shove, Turkey can still enforce a potential eviction of US forces from their bases in Turkey. While such a decision might also lead to a removal of almost 60 nuclear weapons from Turkish soil, removal of US forces will mean that the US will lose a critical base of operations. Furthermore, such a step would create preconditions for Turkey‘s launch of a full-scale military operation against Kurds in northern Syria. Wiping out Kurdish militias would mean the US will lose yet another important ally in the region, which will cripple its ability to influence the situation on the ground in Syria. Turkey has already made the Pentagon a bit nervous through a series of troop movements. On July the 13th, the U.S. Department of Defense, reacting to reports that Turkey has been amassing troops along the border with Syria over the past several days, warned Turkey against making any unilateral military moves into areas of Syria held by US-backed SDF forces.
While it seems unlikely at this stage that Turkey will start an operation on its own, there are reasons to believe that Turkey is actually making counter-movements, intended mainly to deter the US from imposing sanctions.
Apart from these concerns, there is then also no gainsaying that Washington’s desire continue coercing Turkey will grant the latter an excuse to enhance its cooperation with Russia and China even further, enabling it to integrate itself even more deeply with Eurasia.
It seems at this stage that the US is in no position to impose sanctions, as such a step will only make things much worse for both Washington and Tel-Aviv. Turkey is already openly supporting Hamas and Erdogan has more than once characterised Israel as a Nazi state, triggering hot exchanges with Israel’s Netanyahu. The US, of course, doesn’t want to see the situation deteriorate any further, which explains why the White House in its above quoted statement refrained from mentioning possible sanctions against Turkey for the purchase of Russian air defense systems.
Although the US has its concerns and it has shown how there will be limited cooperation with Turkey in the future, they have so far refrained from slamming the door too hard. US foreign policy is, therefore, really operating under the dark shadow of restrictions that prevent it from doing what it would normally do under such circumstances against one of its allies. The US might still be the biggest NATO power, but it is no longer strong enough to force a much smaller and a non-nuclear power into submission. On the contrary, that much smaller power has forced the US into rethinking its usual policies that would otherwise consist of sanctions and smears.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.