S-400 missiles hanging over unexpected U.S.-Turkey rapprochement over Syria

After years of high tensions the United States and Turkey with an unexpected rapprochement agreed over a safe zone plan in northern Syria, but Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missile systems still remains an issue that can strain two allies’ relations, said academics Tarık Başbuoğlu and Umut Korkut in an article for The Conversation on Friday.

Turkey in the last couple of years have repeatedly accused the United States of ignoring Turkey’s security concerns, by supporting the predominantly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which forms the backbone of U.S.-led coalition forces fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Syria.

Turkey maintains that the SDF is an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is also designated as a terrorist organisation by Washington. 

Ankara and Washington this month announced that they had agreed to establish a joint operation centre in Turkey for a planned safe zone in northern Syria, which Turkey sees essential to prevent threats it says posed by SDF-held territories in northeast Syria. 

There are three reasons for the current rapprochement between Ankara and Washington, according to Başbuoğlu and Korkut. The first one is to avoid a military offence by Turkey against the SDF as such a move may lead to a conflict between Turkish and U.S. troops in northern Syria. 

The second reason is the deteriorating situation in Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave in Syria, where the recent advances of the Syrian army against jihadi rebels puts Turkey under the risk of a massive refugee flow from the province which is home to three million people.

The third reason is the personal relations between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, said Başbuoğlu and Korkut.

“Hanging over this rapprochement, however, is the issue of the Russian missiles,” the analysts said.

Despite bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, Trump administration so far has avoided imposing sanctions on Ankara, after Turkey started receiving deliveries of Russian S-400 missile defence systems last month. The U.S. president halted the delivery of 100 F-35 stealth fighters to Turkey, while the Pentagon suspended Turkey’s participation to the F-35 programme. 

“Turkey said it would not activate the missiles until April 2020, allowing negotiation channels with the U.S. over northern Syria to remain open,” Başbuoğlu and Korkut said.