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Where will Turkey point its defences?

Ankara’s purchase of a Russian defence system raises valid questions as to who Turkey perceives as a threat, and what its wider military intentions are

Abdel-Moneim Said , Friday 26 Jul 2019

The Turkish-Russian S-400 deal, which was sealed with the first deliveries of the missile system last week, leaves one dumbfounded at the changes taking place in the Middle East and at how closely they are connected with the superpowers.

Most analyses of this event speak of the growing gap between the US and Turkey due to the former’s policies which have elevated the profile of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria who Turkey regards as an “existential” threat.

The majority of Kurds live in Anatolia and are led by the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The US invasion of Iraq opened the doors to the emergence of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north and the civil war in Syria paved the way for the Kurds in the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is linked to the PKK, to become a prominent player in the war against terrorism and the Islamic State group which had created an “Islamic caliphate” that straddled the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The Kurdish emergence generated a gulf between US and Turkish interests that common membership in NATO and the presence of NATO bases on Turkish territory could not bridge.

The US wanted local allies prepared to fight effectively by its side against common enemies. Turkey believed that the growing strength and presence of Kurdish entities across an extensive stretch of land along its southern flank in both Iraq and Syria posed a serious test to the Turkish interior that the US, firstly, did not acknowledge, and secondly tried to transcend in the framework of the historic alliance that emerged during the Cold War. 

But another reading of the S-400 deal can only conclude that Ankara’s foreign policy pendulum has swung from Washington to Moscow and from the EU to Russia.

It appears that Ankara is reacting to the dismal failure of a decades-long policy of working to join the EU with all the major changes in Turkish political, economic and judicial life that this entailed in order to obtain a seat at the EU table in Brussels.

That aim remained out of reach as Ankara watched other countries, such as Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Cyprus, obtain seats despite the fact that their economies were not as strong as Turkey’s and they did not participate as much as Turkey did to the defence of Europe through NATO.

Moreover, after Turkey’s downing of the Russian Su-24, when Turkish security was put to the test of Russian military threats and actions, Ankara found no backing from the US or the EU.

Subsequently, in the wake of the coup attempt against the Erdogan regime, declarations of support from the West were tardy, hesitant and filled with tones of waning patience at that regime’s economic and political woes, while Erdogan, who had transformed himself into a latter-day Ottoman sultan, suspected that an American hand or signal had somehow been involved in that attempted coup.

To such interpretations of Ankara’s S-400 purchase we can add the technical and tactical dimension. According to news reports, Washington had been reluctant to offer Turkey its Patriot missile system, leaving Ankara no choice but to look elsewhere for an advanced missile defence system.

As it so happened, the place to look was Moscow whose policies and interests had become intertwined with those of Ankara in the Syrian/Iraqi crisis in light of the Turkish military presence in Syria and Ankara’s political interest in joining ranks, not only with Moscow but with Tehran as well, on matters related to Syria and Iraq. 

Still, all the reasons above are not sufficient to explain the Turkish-Russian S-400 deal. After all, countries do not actively seek to possess such advanced missile systems just to display them in military parades.

They procure them in order to put them to use, generally in order to counter a threat of some sort that involves certain kinds of weapons.

The S-400 is equipped to intercept highly advanced military aircraft such as the F-35, the US’s latest generation of multipurpose stealth fighter which has the speed and capacities to take out numerous and diverse targets.

What is amazing, here, is that Turkey was part of the consortium involved in manufacturing this aircraft and would have obtained 100 of them, the first two of which were ready to be delivered to Ankara had not the delivery been halted by the sanctions against Ankara for having gone through with the purchase of the S-400 defence system.

The source of amazement is that Turkey sought to obtain two sophisticated weapon systems, the purpose of each is to destroy the other. One of these systems originated in the US and the other in Russia.

Furthermore, in terms of political geography, Anatolia has experienced two types of external threat in its history. One hailed from the West in World War I, putting an end to the Ottoman Empire and, in its later stages, dividing the country itself.

The other hailed from the east and always from huge and powerful Russia, whether during World War I and before that, or after the rise of the Soviet Union whose military and ideological pressures drove Turkey into the NATO embrace. 

Today, Turkey is still a NATO member and, so far, there are no signs that this is about to change. Yet, it purchases weapons designed to undermine Western military capacities and allies for political and practical purposes with Moscow.

Now, if Ankara has a military alliance with one side and obtains major and conflicting weapons from the other side, against whom is it going to point those weapons? In other words, what are the geopolitical and geostrategic threats that make sense of Ankara’s S-400 acquisition? 

True, some countries buy weapons for the prestige of the brand name and the chance to sit at tables alongside great powers, or in order to forge an independent foreign policy and to be able to defend national security without having to rely on one side or the other. Such reasons may apply in this case.

But these weapons are not going to solve the Turkish government’s dilemmas with Kurdish independence tendencies or with the type of terrorism to which Turkey has opened its arms as a refuge and a forum for its expression. 

The other possibility is that this obsession with acquiring advanced and costly military hardware is the Turkish version of Iranian attempts to acquire nuclear weapons.

Ankara has its sights set on something larger and more extensive than northern Syria and northern Iraq and on something more valuable in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A defence policy aimed to counter “existential threats” does not account for the directions in the development of Turkey’s military architecture.

Rather, these directions can be better understood in the framework of a Turkish intent to threaten and blackmail parties in the regional environment it had occupied for centuries.

Perhaps Ankara imagines that this region’s century and a half of liberation from the Ottoman yoke was a historical glitch and that the time has come to rectify it.

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Where will Turkey point its defences?

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