If no CAATSA for Turkey, none for India too

Turkish Foreign Ministry: Removing Turkey from from US’ F-35 fighter jet program “will irreparably damage relations”, Ankara, July 17, 2019

President Trump’s statement on July 17 to block the sale of the advanced F-35 jet to Turkey and to remove Turkey altogether from the fighter jet programme marks an inflection point in the Turkish-American relations. 

The development has profound implications for India as well, which is also procuring the S-400 Triumf anti-ballistic missile system from Russia. 

Trump timed his decision on Turkey accepting the delivery of components of the Russian S-400 system last Friday. Washington is not holding back until the system has been fully delivered or deployed (in April next year, according to Turkey) or even for Turkish military personnel to receive training for Russia to operate the system. Washington estimates that it’s a done deal, a fait accompli. 

Trump’s main argument is that S-400 is a “Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its [F35] advanced capabilities.” He regretted that Turkey didn’t accept the US’s counteroffers “to meet its legitimate air defense needs” — specifically,  its “multiple offers” on the Patriot system. 

Trump brought the NATO into his argument, saying that the S-400 “undermines the commitments all NATO Allies made to each other to move away from Russian systems” and will have “detrimental impacts on Turkish interoperability with the Alliance”. 

However, he went on to acknowledge Turkey’s record as a “longstanding and trusted partner and NATO Ally for over 65 years”, the great value Washington still attaches to its strategic relationship with Turkey, and the two countries’ relationship as NATO allies, which is “multi-layered, and not solely focused on the F-35.” 

Trump concluded, “Our military-to-military relationship is strong, and we will continue to cooperate with Turkey extensively, mindful of constraints due to the presence of the S-400 system in Turkey.” Trump’s message is that this is the irreducible minimum he’s compelled to do under the circumstances. He eschewed any accusatory tone.

Importantly, Trump didn’t mention a ward about sanctions under the legislation known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (2017) or CAATSA, which threatens third countries with sanctions over any “significant transactions” — defined as deals above $15 million — with Russian defense industry. 

In the eye of the storm: Russia’s S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft missile system, Kaliningrad Region, Russia, March 11, 2019

But then, it is useful to recall that even while signing the CAATSA into law in August 2017, Trump had stated that he believed the legislation was “seriously flawed — particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate.” He said he’d implement it “in a manner consistent with the President’s constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations.”  

So, Erdogan was right when he claimed after meeting Trump on the margins of the G20 in Osaka that the latter reassured him that there would be no sanctions. In Erdogan’s words, “We heard from him [Trump] that there won’t be anything like this [sanctions]. It is out of the question that such a thing takes place between two strategic allies. I believe it cannot happen.”  

Indeed, Trump himself at press conference in Osaka had refused to blame Turkey for its S-400 deal with Russia and instead flagged that Ankara was forced into the deal by the Obama administration. Trump added: “So what happens is we have a situation where Turkey is very good with us, very good, and we are now telling Turkey that because you have really been forced to buy another missile system, we’re not going to sell you the F-35 fighter jets?” 

“It’s a very tough situation that they’re [Turkey] in, and it’s a very tough situation that we’ve been placed in, the United States. With all of that being said, we’re working through it, but it’s not really fair. Because they bought a Russian system, we’re not allowed to sell them billions of aircraft. It’s not a fair situation.” 

To be sure, the CAATSA also gives Trump much discretion to POTUS waive sanctions on countries that buy Russian weapons. The waiver language was reportedly included to accommodate allies India and Vietnam. Now, isn’t Turkey an ally, too? But the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Washington Post on Sunday he was confident the president would levy sanctions as CAATSA requires. “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,” Pompeo said.

What explains Pompeo’s hawkish line on Turkey? Principally, in the Washington Beltway the Israeli lobby is hyperactive among think tankers, politicians, media people, etc. Under Erdogan, Turkey’s relations with Israel nosedived, as he openly began supporting the Hamas. Erdogan has likened Israel more than once to Nazi Germany, triggering hot exchanges with PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has vowed to demonise Erdogan and take him down somehow. 

Indeed, can India draw comfort from the above? Some tentative conclusions can be drawn. For a start, the crunch time comes by early 2021. The latest news from Moscow is that the issues concerning the mode of payments by India have been resolved and deliveries of S-400 Triumf missile systems are “planned to start after 2020 in accordance with the agreement.” 

At any rate, there is nothing like an Indophobia prevalent in the US even if there are differences in the relationship. Trump will have a hard time imposing sanctions against India after being indulgent toward Turkey. The lawmakers are not going to cry for India’s blood if Trump grants a waiver. Basically, Trump has an aversion toward CAATSA, too. 

The minions in his administration or the hangers-on in the think tanks (such as Ashley Tellis at the Carnegie, for example) periodically threaten India with CAATSA. But do they speak for Trump? (In fact, Erdogan said Trump told him in Osaka not to take them seriously.) Clearly, many of these minions who wave the Damocles’ sword at India have their own axe to grind, since they act as dalals for US arms manufacturers and keep hustling the Modi government to granting more arms deals to placate Trump. But in reality, for almost the same reasons that the US cannot do without its alliance with Turkey, India too is not easily replaceable in the US’ Indo-Pacific network of partnerships.

India has much to learn from Erdogan’s way of handling the issue. He stuck to his guns after carefully weighing that the S-400 ABM system’s induction boosts Turkish defence capability. He is even prepared to forgo the F-35. Analysts estimate that Turkey may simply turn elsewhere to procure weapons. Moscow has already indicated openness to selling its latest fighter jet, the Su-57 to Turkey.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has warned that Washington’s decision on the F-35 jet will “irreparably damage relations” and that the unilateral move “neither complies with the spirit of alliance nor is it based on legitimate grounds.” The statement added, “It is unfair to remove Turkey, one of the main partners in the F-35 program.”

The cardinal lesson India can learn from Erdogan is that defending national interests will always come at a high price, especially when a superior power is involved. Turkey has a long history, situated on the outskirts of the western world, with searing experiences to recount through centuries. India too has a painful colonial history. (See an analysis by the European Council on Foreign Relations titled Unhappy anniversary: Turkey’s failed coup and the S-400.)