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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Turkey Slams US Sanctions Over Russian Missile System Purchase

By Dorian Jones December 15, 2020

The Trump administration's decision to sanction NATO ally Turkey over the purchase of a Russian missile system has drawn swift Turkish condemnation. For now, however, Ankara appears to be holding off on any retaliation, a move analysts suggest is a sign that Turkey is already looking ahead to the new administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.

"We are strong in the field and at the table," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu Tuesday in response to the sanctions.

"We condemn this decision and call on the U.S. to step back from this mistake as soon as possible," Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said on Twitter.

Turkey's purchase of Russia's S-400 missile system in 2017 triggered Trump's sanctions, as it violated the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA. Along with Turkey's other NATO partners, the United States says the S-400 compromises NATO's defense systems, an accusation Ankara denies. It has been reported that the S-400 is capable of shooting down aircraft such as the F-35, the U.S.'s latest fighter jet.

Turkey has already paid a heavy price for purchasing the Russian missiles. It is now barred from buying and building the F-35. Turkey began taking possession of parts of the S-400 in 2019.

The latest sanctions primarily target Turkey's military procurement agency, banning U.S. export licenses and loan credits. Several senior individuals working at the agency have also been targeted.

Under the CAATSA legislation, however, the sanctions are seen as among the less punitive.

"They are symbolic," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of consulting group Global Source Partners. "They are not damaging at all; as far as the individual involved, it has no impact. For me, this is a preemptive first round, and more is to come."

Ismail Demir, head of Turkey's military procurement agency and a prime target of U.S. sanctions, was quick to dismiss the penalties.

"No decision taken abroad towards myself or our institution will change the stance of my team or me," Demir tweeted." The sanctions will not be able to hinder the Turkish defense industry in any way."

On Ankara's part, at least for now, the response appears to be limited to rhetoric.

"Turkey will take the necessary steps against this decision, which will negatively affect our relations and will retaliate in a manner and timing it deems appropriate," read a Foreign Ministry statement Monday.

Bordering Syria, Iran and Iraq, Turkey is a crucial Washington ally in the region.

"Turkey is a regional power of inescapable geopolitical importance especially given the current context of international affairs," said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in Washington.

The U.S. has a vital radar base close to Iran, while American forces have for decades used Turkey's Incirlik airbase, one of the largest in the region.

Turkey's NATO membership also gives it leverage over the United States.

"I do not think that Turkey needs to declare right away that it will veto any and every NATO decision that will come its way," said Selcen, who is now an analyst. "Yet, all the members are aware of the fact that Turkey yields full veto power if need be, and that is a factor for them to take into consideration."

Observers suggest Trump's decision to sanction Turkey just before leaving office could work in Ankara's favor. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been calling for months for Trump to enforce the CAATSA legislation against Turkey for procuring the Russian missile system.

"Trump did a favor for his pal Erdogan," said analyst Yesilada. "He really gave maneuvering room to Biden to negotiate with Mr. Erdogan. Before (Trump's move), he was compelled by law to impose sanctions." Yesilada was referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ankara has reportedly stepped up its courting of the incoming U.S. president, employing new political lobbying firms with close links to the future Biden administration and sending high-level party officials to Washington to coordinate efforts.

"On the Biden administration, it will not be the first time Erdogan will be working with a Democratic president," said Aydin. "U.S. priorities of drawing a line to both Russia and Iran speak for themselves."

Turkey's geographic position makes it well placed to counter both Russian and Iranian regional ambitions. Ankara's current close ties with Moscow and Tehran are major points of contention with its Western allies.

A diplomatic reorienting of Turkey away from Iran and Russia and concessions over the S-400, analysts say, are among Erdogan's most powerful cards in dealing with Biden.

In an effort to keep Turkey close, Iran and Russia were quick to condemn the U.S. sanctions.

"It's yet another manifestation of an arrogant attitude toward international law and the use of illegitimate unilateral forcible measures," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a news conference Tuesday while visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina's capital, Sarajevo.

"U.S. addiction to sanctions and contempt for international law is at the full display again. We strongly condemn recent U.S. sanctions against Turkey and stand with its people and government," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.

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