Trump Should Call Erdogan’s Bluff on Patriot Missiles


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Given President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s penchant for political gamesmanship, it is hard to know how seriously to take Turkey’s request for U.S. Patriot missile-defense batteries to be deployed on its southern border with Syria. The request was relayed last week to James Jeffrey, the American envoy for Syria engagement. 

Ostensibly, the Patriots are meant to deter — or punish — the Russian air force, which has been providing cover for the forces of the dictator Bashar al-Assad in the intensifying battle for Idlib.

But there is a strong possibility that the request is a ruse, and that the message is meant for Moscow, not Washington. Erdogan may be signaling to President Vladimir Putin that the new Turkish-Russian relationship is at peril over Idlib.

The symbolism is hardly subtle. Erdogan’s decision last year to buy Russian S-400 missile-defense systems instead of the Patriots offered by the U.S. marked Turkey’s turn away from its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and toward their adversary. He may want Moscow to believe that Russia’s actions in Idlib could force Turkey back into the Western fold.

If it is indeed a bluff, Putin is unlikely to be taken in — and the U.S. should call it.

The Russian leader, a more skilled brinkmaster, knows that Erdogan cannot easily extract himself from a relationship in which the Turkish president has invested enormous political capital. Just as important, Russia is already a key economic partner, in areas ranging from energy to tourism.

Putin has already ignored Erdogan’s aggressive rhetoric over Idlib. Russian jets are pounding positions held by Turkey and its allies in the Syrian rebellion. By Ankara’s reckoning, about 40,000 rebels are cornered in Idlib — plus 20,000 Islamist fighters linked to al-Qaeda. Russia makes little distinction between the two, and says they are being supported by Turkish artillery.

Quite apart from casualties among the proxies, regular Turkish soldiers have died in the fighting — two were killed in an airstrike yesterday.

The U.S. has expressed support for Turkey’s position, but the Trump administration has not committed any American firepower, in the air or on the ground. “We are working together on seeing what can be done,” Trump said earlier in the week.

By asking for the U.S. to deploy the Patriots, Turkey is in effect calling for American boots on the ground in the middle of the conflict. That is a big ask during a presidential election cycle in which Trump has been playing up his “success” in greatly reducing the American footprint in Syria. The president’s claims may not be borne out by the statistics, but they resonate with his base.

But Trump also genuinely seems to like Erdogan, and has responded favorably to his demands, especially when they are made directly, president-to-president. He can ignore a request for Patriots made through Jeffrey, but should Erdogan, responding to continued Russian action against Turkey and its proxies, get on the phone to the White House… anything is possible.

If it comes to that, Trump should set firm conditions for the Patriots. Turkey should mothball —  ideally, return to sender — the S-400 systems it has received, and agree not to order more. Erdogan should commit to peace talks with U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. And he should stop threatening to unleash waves of refugees on Europe. (For good measure, Trump should call on the Europeans to provide greater assistance to Turkey as the fighting in Idlib sends hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border.)

If Turkey’s request for Patriots is indeed a bluff, Erdogan will reject these demands. He must then lie in the bed he has made in Syria. But if he genuinely wants to bring Turkey back into the Western fold, in spirit as well as in theory, the price for readmission must be clearly posted at the entrance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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