2019-03-11

Interview with Sinan Ülgen on S-400 deal, Syria, Iran and US-Turkish relations

Kübra Par's interview with Sinan Ülgen


President of EDAM think-tank, a former diplomat Sinan Ulgen, spoke to Habertürk's Kübra Par. In an interview with Habertürk, Ülgen said, "The S400s are better than the Patriots as air defense systems, but they may not be as effective as a missile defense system because radar and satellite networks are not integrated in NATO architecture."

Turkey didn't decide to purchase the S-400 systems out ob blue. US Patriot missiles have been causing much interest in Turkey for nearly seven years. Now, how realistic to US calls to Turkey to abandon the S-400 deal and opt out for the Patriots? Besides, can the S-400 be purchased along the Patriot missiles?

Theoretically both can be bought together. I say 'theoretically', because such strategic weapon platforms have two types of functions. Turkey initially wanted to build a defense architecture against ballistic missiles, and main aim of negotiations was to provide a weapon platform for it. But it was seen that the S-400s could not be used as a missile defense system in any way. Because this missile defense system will not only be equipped with anti-missile batteries by the S-400s; it has a large architecture consisting of radar and satellite. This system is only available in NATO. Turkey's own ability doesn't allow to have this architecture. Therefore, this is a meaningful weapon if it is a strategic weapon that can be integrated into NATO architecture. Otherwise the S-400 trying to use them as a missile defense system will be like shooting with a half-blind system. 

Because the main threat here is Iran and Syria, where the missile takes off, and the angle of the missile system can not be calculated easily without additional assets, so S-400 will not see them. However, the Patriots will be able to integrate with the NATO system and thus see the missiles. Turkey is still continuing negotiation on the system produced by the European consortium, it will can be integrated as well. So if you get a system that can be integrated with NATO, you can use it as a missile defense system. The S-400 will not be able to perform this function. In this case, the S-400 will be considered as an air defense system and not as a missile defense system. 

So, does the S-400 have an advantage over the Patriots?

No not as a missile defense system. However, there is also a need to use Turkey's airspace against foreign aircraft. In the beginning we had a search for missile defense system, but there was a weakness in our air defense system due to the decrease in the number of pilots in the Air Force especially after the coup. Because Turkey is a country that traditionally secures air space with its air forces.

If a plane threatens the airspace, we're trying to eliminate him by another plane. 

Yeah, we shot down the Russian plane in 2015. Turkey, in the case of air defense relied on the F-16 fleet. But since the Air Force had a reduction in the number of pilots after the coup, the capacity of these aircraft to perform this task fell a little. In Ankara they say 'let's not only rely on the air force to strengthen defence, let's have air defense system'. The S-400s can play a function here. Technically speaking, the S-400s have higher technological capabilities than the Patriots in this sense. If you use the S-400 as an air defense system, we can say that they are better than the Patriots in this respect. 

Well, at this point, what should Turkey do?

If we're talking about an ideal world, Turkey, for the S-400 air defense systems, should take for the Patriot missile defense system. But there is no ideal world. Turkey develops its preferences in today's world politics, in which it is a member of the Western alliance with own duties of NATO membership. Moreover, we have to consider the process of sanctions imposed on the United States by Russia. The S-400 prices may be lower, but unfortunately it may result in much heavier cost for Turkey. There's a political side of it. But more importantly, we talk about the future of Turkey and this may lead to the exclusion from the F-35 platform, which would have great effect on its defense capacity. Because this is not only a national defense project, but also a project with participation of the Turkish defense industry with a capital volume of approximately $ 12 billion.

But probably there are costs with double-sided effect, because Turkey may pay a price for the withdrawal of US F-35 project, as well as the US, which worries Americans too. 

Of course. Because Turkey is part of the industrial chain with public investments, ongoing projects. If Turkey, together with the company contributing thereto together with the defense industry, withdraw from this chain, then it will have to be directed to different suppliers of all F-35 platform, the cost will increase, time will increase. But America, even if it would cost more can can afford to exclude Turkey from the F-35 platform. That's what makes the debates especially dangerous.

Put simply, what is the relationship between the S-400 and F-35s?

America has two concerns. First, the F-35 is not just a plane, but a flying headquarter. This provides the place with constant communication with many elements within the system that governs the battlefield. With the F-35 you can communicate with AWACS planes and headquarters on the ground and even tactical elements on the ground. This communication is also carried out through a data line in NATO. Likewise, F-35 aircraft from all over the world use a common cloud system called ALES. America's fear is that the S-400, which will be located in the same geography as the F-35s, will hack the ALES infrastructure and hence the whole F-35 platform, steal the information therein and thus threaten the security of the entire F-35. We say this is not only in regards to the aircraft in Turkey, because once that if you hack the platform, you access communication of the jets sold to Estonia. 

When we ask the Presidency representatives about this concern they tell us '' the previous model S-300 were sold to NATO member Greece in the past. Moreover, if Russia wanted to 'steal' the technology of such systems, they would have already done it without waiting us to buy the S-400'. What do you think about this? 

I don't agree with this view, because the S-300 is a much older technology. Therefore, it is not possible to perform such cyber operations over the S-300. Entering into networks is only possible with a new technology such as the S-400. Secondly, Russians may or may not have hacked the F-35 placard. But there is such a hesitation on the US side, and we cannot ignore it. After all, we can't say that S-400 can't hack the F-35 platform outright. 

Let me ask another question about the S-400 What happens when if we don't get the S-400s? 

If Turkey doesn't get it, we can always have alternatives in terms of air defense. 

The Patriots? 

Of course it can be that alternative. Already the last package offered to us was 140 Patriots. Of these, 60 are among the most advanced version of the Patriot, while the remaining 80 are of a previous generations. Therefore, the Patriots can perform the functions of the S-400 on their own. There are issues such as technology transfer, but we have not yet begun to negotiate whether technology transfer will take place with the Patriot systems. 

What is exactly a technology transfer?

It has two dimensions: first, the Patriot's production process involves more participation of the Turkish defense industry, which is currently the case in some of the companies from Turkey which have been included in the production process. Secondly, the production of a version of the Patriot suitable to Turkey's own needs. Therefore, this needs to be done with the analysis of Turkish special requirements. We are able to talk America about this. But that's not going to happen in the short term. Turkey says ''the system was necessary a moment ago". The said proposing to Turkey includes only ready material. A new technology product development together could better answer Turkey's needs in the coming years, but sides haven't even yet started negotiations about this. 

Another option nowadays is that the S-400s will be taken, but never used. Can this be realistic? 

Yeah, that's what I'm hearing. We're gonna get the S-400 from Russia, we'll find a big hangar, lock the door and never come back. This option does not allow us to get rid of CAATSA sanctions. As far as I see the material that triggered the sanctions will come to Turkey. But the cooperation of the F-35 and F-16 in terms of great importance for Turkey. Again, like I said it sanction package endangers the delivery of spare parts.

Spare part are important, right? 

Yes. Spare parts supply is critical for the operational efficiency of our F-16 fleet. If you put the S-400s there and never run it, then argument about hacking American F-35 platform, the F-35 stealth feature, access to some of the unwanted findings becomes a bit baseless.

Is it possible to find a middle way for the S-400 without offending Russia? 

I think it's possible. This can happen with a third country that will buy this system. Russia sells this system to other countries. It sold them to China and India. Perhaps India may want to also buy batteries from Turkey. Then they will be not for to Turkey, it will be sent to India. Therefore, Russia has not suffered a financial loss. The second solution would be to obtain a non- strategic weapon system from Russia, which is sensitive to this nature, rather than a strategic weapon system that would create such a fluctuation in NATO and relations with the United States . For example, small scale anti-rocket systems can be purchased instead. 

Will Russia accept it?

It requires some diplomatic dexterity. My hope is that Turkey may overcome this difficult period and finally does a skillful diplomatic work with the Russian S-400, this may be done without creating political tensions in the USA. There money issue is will also be removed from Russia side by purchasing non-strategic weapon systems.

Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers stated that Turkey's purchase of the S-400 air defense systems from Russia will have serious consequences in terms of military relations between Turkey and America. He clearly implied a threat to Turkey. Similar statements come from the Pentagon. Are sanctions really possible?

The current trend really strengthens this prospect. In August 2017, the United States issued the CAATSA Act as a response both to the annexation of Russia of Crimea and its interference in the US presidential elections. Within the scope of this law, 34 companies, which are active in the defense industry, were included in the sanctions list. This was a law that would now impose sanctions on different companies or institutions in the third world, who are doing business with Russian companies listed in the list. 

In general, America's sanction regime also authorizes the President to block or impede these sanctions on the grounds of US national security.  But CAATSA is an counter example of it. This is a law against Trump. Because the issue of intervention in the presidential elections is based on the finding that Russia is helping Trump. 

Consequently, the Congress did not leave Trump a margin of action as a measure against Trump's punishment against Russia's sanctions regime. If somehow this sanction is triggered, then no matter how good our relationship with Trump is, the outcome will not matter; in this case sanctions will be applied automatically. But I would like to emphasize that the most important hesitation and risk factor for us is not sanctions. Sanctions, of course, will lead to some unintended political consequences between Turkey and the United States. But the more important in terms of results on the F-35 program long-term interests of Turkey. 

NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg's statements on Turkey's purchase of the S-400s are relatively tolerant. But there are still discussions whether Turkey would leave the NATO? Do you see any prospects of this?

If you had asked this question a year ago, I would say, there is no such risk, we are talking about this imaginary scenario. Today my answer would be that this is theoretically possible but extremely unlikely. Of course, in the event of the introduction of a sanctions regime between two NATO members. Especially considering also our justified criticism of the US-YPG cooperation. This degree of weakening of the US-Turkey relations, Turkey's position in NATO at the end of a way it becomes unstable. The most important element of NATO in all alliance countries is Article 5, a common security clause. In other words, if any NATO country is attacked, all other NATO countries will come to protect it. This is a matter based on common trust. As a member of NATO Turkey should be sure that in case of any attack America or France will say that they would protect Turkish allies. 

If the USA or Western alliance's political relations with other countries become tense, then the expectations of Turkey about NATO also moving away from being realistic. Indeed, the NATO Alliance is not a decisive player here. The US did not support us in the past, but in 2003, when the US intervened in Iraq, we said "no" to the use of our territory for this intervention. We are NATO's allies of America, but our national security required back then us not to respond positively. Now the same is true for the US. In other words, the NATO alliance has some natural limits when it comes to national interests.

We are also talking about the new developments in Syria. Turkey says "ok" to a safe zone "OK", but insists on controlling it. Americans want to cease control to the coalition of European forces there as it was voiced in recent days. Will Turkey accept this?

The ideal solution is to expand Turkey's model of Jarabulus and Afrin in Syria to the northeast. Local actors will be involved in an order to re-development there, especially in areas of health and education and to perform a number of government services. However, the balances in the region does not allow this solution to be reflected in the field as elsewhere. no actors in the region there does not want Turkey to have this very effect. At that time, at least some of the parties through diplomatic negotiation will agree to support this model. Here, it is necessary to review the actors' attitude towards the safe zone. 

For instance, at the Sochi meeting Russia made it clear that it wants the regime to control the region. It posited that if Turkey has reservations at the national security point, it should find a solution by contacting Syria directly on the basis of the Adana Agreement. The attitude of the regime stays the same. Iran, in no way does not want Turkey to enter the region. 

Thus, Turkey will have America as the only actor able to negotiate with on this issue. They have both positive and negative sides in its way. On the positive side, the US-YPG relationship is weakening now. The negative side is also deprived from conducting a balanced policy between Russia and Turkey. Finally, the United States said that 200 of its soldiers in the north, 200 soldiers will remain in the south. There is a multinational coalition for the control of this region. Turkey's power politics in the field environment can not reflect all aspects. Inclusion of Turkish control into multinational force would be most suitable to Turkish interests.

Well, what the axis of Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime would say to that? 

Turkey would look positively but here certainly Turkey will no longer be alone. If it gets the support of the countries like America and NATO, it will be able to impose its position more effectively.

On the other hand, the PYD started talks with the regime. We are also concerned about the US side of this situation. Does the PYD, the Syrian extension of the PKK, which was protected by Hafez Assad for years, now agree with Bashar Assad? If sides agree what changes Turkey should expect? 

They understand each other, because when you look at the nature of their contacts, you see that the Syria-PKK relationship has a historical past. There are many Syrian senior executives within the PKK. The PKK was a tool used by Syria against Turkey in the past. During Abdullah Öcalan there was a process of the PKK's build-up along the Syria's border with Turkey. Therefore, there is nothing strange in the regime's relationship with the YPG. 

The PYD had not started a full war against the Syrian regime until ISIS emerged.  

Yes, even in the first period, the regime withdrew and left the whole control to the PYD. The photos of Abdullah Öcalan and Bashar Assad in the public buildings were standing side by side. Therefore, the relationship between YPG-regime should not seem strange. Of course, the withdrawal of America accelerated the process of dialogue. YPG will be weakened if the withdrawal happens, since they trusted America, and that may be a threat against Turkey. Here, of course, the regime's hand is much stronger, because the YPG is politically weak.

Do you see the possibility of some kind of autonomy or federal system?

This is another topic of discussion. But Syria will not be a state where Bashar Assad has all powers as before. 

Can a PYD agreement with Assad find US support at the same time? 

No. But the US-PYD relationship became weaker with the decision to withdraw America. Once America made that decision, America will lose its influence in the region over time. 

But Trump promised to the PYD representative Ilham Ahmed that America "will not allow Turkey to massacre them". We have heard statements such as Turkey of the target area. This relationship between the two sides still is doomed to become weak? 

It will weaken. It is not possible for the United States to support the PYD-YPG with the same degree of activity of their forces from the field anymore. 

How do you see the Syrian crisis in the next 5 years?

If there will be a Syrian state in the coming term, then in a constitutional order, the borders of Syria must be controlled by the Syrian state. For it, in the longer term, the position of Russia is not unreasonable. The territories in northeastern Syria must be under the control of the Syrian regime. This is not a very bad solution for Turkey, because it will be an interlocutor. Turkey and the Syrian regime will have a top-level dialogue any time soon, but everything is going to this. Unfortunately, it was clear that the winner of the war in Syria was Assad. So there will be Assad, Turkey's borders also need to be talked one day like its own security issues. In longer terms, Russia's solution, namely territorial integrity of Syria is provided by Syria is more appropriate to the nature of the work. But in the old way, there will be no state, but a more flexible state model. 

Trump said that America defeated ISIS in Syria. Is the ISIS over for the years to come? Is there any possibility that a new ISIS would appear after that?

In terms of territorial dominance, the ISIS has today 2 percent of the area it had in the past. But this would be a bit simple approach to ISIS, because these people didn't go anywhere. They lost their land, but still continue to be nurtured by the basic dynamics that was feeding the ISIS. For him, it is misleading to say that the struggle against ISIS has been won, because, when you put together the reasons why ISIS appeared there, there is no guarantee that there will be no ISIS-like structure there after 2 years. Especially in Turkey and the world in that respect should be very careful about it. 

In the coming period, if Assad would stay, it would be more difficult because Assad's existence and sectarian policies were one of the fundamental dynamics that led to the emergence of ISIS. Assad will not leave, This would be in the best interest of all of us to come to a position where Syria can at least provide education and health services. Because if they do not, the lands will be much more open to radical movements.

Turkey has achieved significant success with a diplomatic agreement Idlib. But the regime and partly Russia says that the Idlib agreement is not fully implemented. At the moment, there are some statements that the HTS has increased regional dominance there. What is happening in Idlib?

Idlib is a very difficult issue, because the opposition lost ground during the war, but the more radical sections of this opposition always gathered in Idlib. The radicals from Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, were carried with buses to Idlib. For them Idlib, the last bastion of these radical elements. Therefore, this region does not resemble other regions. According to some comments there are 30-35 thousand armed radical elements. The aim of Turkey is to prevent attacks of the regime here, because it could be trigger further influx of refugees to Turkey. Thus, Turkey has conducted a very successful diplomacy in that period, with Russia and indirectly regime. But Turkey promised to established security and stability there, in doing so, an tough obligation was undertaken. Turkey undertook the obligation to somehow solve the Idlib issue in order to stop the operation.

Things went really well at first. Turkey's direct and indirect appeared to be a set of tools that penetrate the structure therein. Through FSA and other groups there has been some progress. But see here that the business is reversed, and this time around the HTS was a cluster. The other elements of the HTS were victorious, succeeded in increasing self-participation and raised land dominance. Today we are faced with such a scene. Therefore, if you still will not be a Russian-backed regime of Turkey's operations in the next stage, the responsibility will have taken care to comply with other methods. Turkey acted coy here trying to postpone it for the right reasons, because it would open the door directly to the other methods I mentioned Turkey's military operations. There is also Turkey's goal is to do it alone, even in case of a joint operation with Russia, might seem to act as partners in the planning point. 

Recently, Trump's son-in-law and consultant Kushner was hosted by Ankara. The Trump administration has recently focused on efforts to build an anti-Iranian bloc on the Saudi-Gulf-Israel axis. Will this clustering towards Iran gain a new operation? So what happens in a situation where Turkey's position?

The best formula for Turkey to abstain from such a tension, because Iran engages in activities, some of which are against Turkey's interest. But the solution can't be achieved though a military operation, because a military operation against Iran makes these problems more radical. They're definitely going to squeeze them in other ways. Already in the background of the withdrawal of America from the Nuclear Agreement Joint Action Plan. But John Bolton, Trump's National Security Adviser, is the author of a paper on Iran's bombing, this was published in the Wall Street Journal two years ago. For him, it is not possible to completely exclude such a military option in the US, but this will not be the first option. The pressure on Iran has been increasing since the alliance was established to increase the pressure on Iran. Iran's economy is worsening, oil exports have fallen. Political tensions within Iran have become more prominent. Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif resigned two days ago. 

Why did he resign? Is it really susceptibility to not being invited to visit Assad? 

His absence during the visit of Assad was the last straw. In general, Rouhani thinks that he no longer has enough support for himself and that policies are increasingly shaped by hardliners. He's been in this difficult mission for 6 years. These are people who sold the nuclear deal to the Iranian public. Now America has withdrawn from the nuclear deal, the pressure inside has increased. Therefore, Zarif is also accused. That's why he gave up his resignation. 

How do you interpret the official visit of Assad to Iran in such a conjuncture?

Already during the war Iran was one of the greatest supporters of Assad, but then, at least in the region, the idea of ​​integrating Syria into the Arab League and recovering from the Iranian influence began. The visit is a very clear message to the rest of the region. The relationship between Assad and Iran is very strong.

Let's talk about the energy issue in the Mediterranean. How will it affect Turkey in the long run?

This will affect badly. In the end there is a conflict situation, the problem in Cyprus is unresolved. The Cyprus problem has a significance in terms of Eastern Mediterranean energy resources. Therefore, Turkey needs to do here was drawing near countries that have a role in this regard in the region. But here we are in Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Cyprus in the breaking point. Then, Turkey by drawing to its side countries sees strengthening of the alliance against Turkey. 

Therefore, Turkey's realistic policy in this controversial situation in the eastern Mediterranean, should focus on attempts to move together with the countries of the region to strengthen its position. But we did not have the opportunity to come today. Turkey was left alone at this stage of politics. Nevertheless, in line with our traditional policy of Turkey continues to defend its own policy. 

Turkey entered into the process with a research ship named Barbaros Fatih. Can Turkey take the lead alone here, or at the end of the day we still be disadvantaged in the Mediterranean?

This is associated with the ability of Turkey to build new alliances. Unfortunately the attitude of Turkey towards international law is not adopted by the international public opinion, since the TRNC is not recognized by anyone. The international community knows the part of the government that is represented by the Greeks. As this assumption is generally recognized, there is a common belief that the Greek government should make the savings on the resources in the economic zone of the island of Cyprus as an extension of this. This is a narrative that starts behind Turkey's more diplomatically. As such, although there are also a number of sources saying that these resources belong only to one side and be able to say that despite all the international community in order to convert a realistic economic feasibility of the project, which is much more difficult.

Relations with the European Union have come to a breaking point, is there a return? Can we go back to the old days of negotiations with Europe?

We're not going back in the short term. This is both in Turkey there are reasons specific to Europe. Why are unique to Turkey, Turkey's democracy in the ground for several years, as at least the perception abroad; democracy, human rights, freedom of expression. Europe-specific causes of the political dynamics in Europe increasingly extreme right, anti-immigrant, anti-Turkey is gaining ground by the party and be effective in domestic politics. When these two are brought together, it is clear that we will not return to the old days in the short term. The year 2019 will probably be a very stable because Turkey's need to have a serious political reform agenda in order to take this stasis. We don't see much sign there. As an exception to this, we are working on a new i Judicial Reform Package, hopefully a project with a content from here. In Europe, there are elections for the European Parliament in May. It will be a bargain for all European institutions after the elections. Year 2019 is a lost year. So we need to look a little further. 

Beyond the more we see that Turkey's full membership target should protect in certain circumstances. Full membership Since 1963, different governments have been led by different political leaders, and ultimately adopted by the AK Party government. We need to protect it. Full membership process will be frozen for a while. During that time, at least, in some areas of interest to both sides, it is necessary to form a complementary cooperation. The backbone of this model of cooperation will be a deepened, modernized Customs Union. In other words, the door to the integration of the Turkish economy into the European economy will be opened. There will also be other areas; visa liberalization, cooperation in the field of energy. In order to be able to construct them, the two sides act a bit more mature, a little more calm and a little smarter; he has to act in a way that leaves the field of diplomacy instead of public opinion.

Turkey is moving away from European values, a discourse say. How close is the European Union itself to European values? Despite the execution of nine young people, we witness EU their support for Sisi. Wasn't it an internal contradiction for Europe?

Certainly it was contradiction. This was criticized by Turkey but it was also criticized in Europe. There is also the European Union. This was a meeting with the Arab League, not a stake in Egypt.

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