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U.S.-Turkey Relations Threatened After Turkey Accepts Air Defense System From Russia


A moment that foreign policy watchers had been waiting for happened on Friday.


KELLY: That's the sound of parts from a new missile defense system - the S-400 - arriving in Ankara in Turkey. The system is made by Russia. Turkey is an American ally and a member of NATO. And U.S. officials have threatened to cut Turkey out of any sales of F-35 fighter jets if they work with the Russians.


MARK ESPER: If Turkey procures the S-400, it will mean they will not receive the F-35. It's that simple.

KELLY: That's Mark Esper, President Trump's nominee for defense secretary, speaking last month. The S-400 sale also triggers U.S. sanctions against Turkey. And the fate of the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. is now in question.

I asked two experts to join me to talk about this last point. One is David Welna, our national security correspondent. And the other is Asli Aydintasbas. She's senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a Turkish journalist based in Istanbul. I started by asking Aydintasbas for the view from Turkey and from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Erdogan sees it as his calling to see Turkey emerge as a great power. And I think the calculus is that in order to do that, you just cannot be a loyal member of the western league because things are in flux. And, you know, even NATO is now undergoing some difficult periods with President Trump clearly expressing a lack of faith in the NATO system. So I think the people who are running Turkey right now think that they need to retain some independence from the different power groups that are emerging.

KELLY: Quick sense from each of you, what are the stakes here? Asli, you start.

AYDINTASBAS: The price is too high. It's not just a matter of being equidistant to United States and Russia. Being a part of the western league has benefited Turkey enormously, economically, militarily, strategically and in social ways. We are now a western country, and giving that up isn't just about giving - you know, facing U.S. sanctions, which is definitely...

KELLY: On the table, which we'll get to.

AYDINTASBAS: ...Coming. It's also giving up possibly whatever is left of our democracy. The only place where you can safely establish a democracy today is if you are part of the western camp, so to speak. So if we actually do think of this as a point in history later in our lives, go back to this S-400 purchase and that was the day Turkey exited the West - it may well become also the end of our democracy.

KELLY: David, what about from here in Washington? Why does the U.S. relationship with Turkey matter?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Turkey is in a very strategic place on the map. It really is sort of the spot where East meets West. It is just north of the Middle Eastern countries where the U.S. has been involved in wars over the past couple decades.

KELLY: Iraq, to start at the top of that list.

WELNA: There is a major Turkish airbase almost on the border with Syria, Incirlik, where U.S. jets have been flying sorties out of. And there are also U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiled there. And this may be also why Erdogan feels so emboldened to go ahead and get Russia's air defense system because he knows how much the West needs Turkey.

KELLY: So obviously a long and complicated history. Bottom line is Turkey is a keen NATO ally, and it's in a really rough neighborhood where the U.S. has many interests at stake - Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, everything else going on around the Persian Gulf.

WELNA: And Turkey, I think, is betting that those interests are going to outweigh any kind of concern about Turkey making alliances with Russia. And domestically, President Trump has been very cozy with President Erdogan of Turkey.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's a tough cookie, OK, right. President Erdogan - he's tough, but I get along with him. And maybe that's a bad thing, but I think it's a really good thing.

WELNA: Really kind of defended almost his decision to buy the S-400 system. It's forcing that sentiment in confrontation with what Congress has done. And Congress passed a law two years ago saying that, if any country buys or has a significant transaction with Russia's defense sector, that there would be sanctions. And right now, as of three days since the first delivery of the S-400 system, there has been no announcement of sanctions.

KELLY: And just to be clear, how much leeway does the president have here? Because my understanding was sanctions are automatic. That's what members of Congress, including many Republicans, have come out and said - we don't got a choice here.

WELNA: Yes, they are automatic. But the president can delay imposing those sanctions for up to 180 days if he finds that it's in the interests of U.S. national security. And he can, after that, delay for up to six months - and this is renewable - if he finds that Turkey is diminishing its purchases of significant transactions with Russia's defense sector.

KELLY: OK. I want to bring in the voice of President Erdogan of Turkey into the conversation. He was at the G-20 summit recently. He was asked by a reporter about this whole situation.



KELLY: The gist of that, Asli Aydintasbas, is no one says President Trump has given him assurances that there will be no sanctions on Turkey, that there is some way out of this, that their personal relationship is going to carry the day. What is the view from Turkey?

AYDINTASBAS: Look. There has been very confusing messages coming from Washington. Erdogan has never heard it from Trump that he would be facing sanctions if he bought S-400s. The U.S. president really focused on having good meetings, having a good talk with Erdogan even as late as the G-20 meeting two weeks ago.


TRUMP: And now they're saying he's using the S-400 system, which is incompatible with our system.

AYDINTASBAS: Basically, President Trump repeated Turkish talking points...


TRUMP: But honestly, I'm all for our country. But he got treated very unfairly.

AYDINTASBAS: ...Saying Turkey was treated so unfairly by the Obama administration and this and that, so basically leading Turkish government to think that even if we buy this system, President Trump, our trusted friend in Washington, surrounded by deep state in the Turkish imagination, but that he will do his best to make the sanctions business go away.

KELLY: So what next? We mentioned that just on Friday, missile parts started arriving from Russia. They were being shipped to Ankara. They're coming in. What are you each watching for? Asli.

AYDINTASBAS: I'll be watching to see what happens in Washington. Is Trump going to go for a suspension, as they were talking...

KELLY: Suspension of sanctions, yeah.

AYDINTASBAS: Is it the case that Congress is so tough that the State Department or the administration feels they have to slap Turkey with something? In that case, is it going to be light, medium, heavy? Is that going to involve banks, which would really be problematic for Turkish financial industry? Or is it going to be just a bunch of individuals and, you know, a few companies that are involved in the sale?

And also, I'll be watching to see what happens in six months to a year from now. Is there a day-after scenario? OK, sanctions and (unintellgible) - but how do we climb down from all of this? Is there a chance to save the strategic relationship on both sides?

KELLY: David.

WELNA: I guess I'm looking to see if we have any kind of official response.

KELLY: You're watching Twitter is what you're saying.

WELNA: Yes. I think if we don't see something this week, it's going to raise a real question about whether these sanctions are a paper tiger. And there are other countries that are also looking at buying Russia's S-400 air defense system.

KELLY: And if Turkey doesn't pay a price for it, what's to stop them?

WELNA: What the U.S. does with Turkey could have reverberations in a lot of other places as well.

KELLY: All right, wrapping up the state of U.S.-Turkish relations and what may come next. That is David Welna, NPR national security correspondent, and Asli Aydintasbas, Turkish journalist and senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks to you both.

WELNA: You're welcome.

AYDINTASBAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.