Thursday, September 3, 2009

Turkey seeks shield amid missile-defense negotiations


Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu says it’s not so and American officials are mum, but according to a top defense lobbyist, “negotiations are ongoing” over U.S. plans to deploy a missile-defense shield in Turkey, a possibility floated last week by a Polish newspaper.

Riki Ellison, chairman of the U.S.-based Missle Defense Advocacy Alliance, or MDAA, insisted to the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review that claims by the Polish newspaper are valid.

The stir began last week when the Warsaw-based daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported that U.S. President Barack Obama has "all but abandoned" plans to locate parts of a controversial U.S. missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. The newspaper said the Pentagon has been asked to explore switching planned interceptor-rocket launch sites from the two Central European states to Israel, Turkey or the Balkans.

U.S. plans to deploy a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic have created serious tension between Russia and the United States in the past. Russia has repeatedly responded to U.S. missile-defense plans with countermeasures.

It is no secret that the Obama administration's promise to "reset" relations with Russia prompted Obama to launch a strategic review of the defense shield.

Amid the Pentagon’s search for a new strategy, last week’s reports turned heads toward Turkey. Foreign Minister Davutoğlu immediately responded to the claims, saying that the government has not received any request from the United States or NATO regarding the missile-defense project.

Ellison said he hopes to see a working missile-defense shield in operation by 2013. Ellison’s MDAA is a nonprofit organization launched in 2002 to advocate deployment of an anti-missile program.

Ellison said he believes there will be a concerted effort from the United States to work with the Turkish government to install missile shields at four bases in Turkey. “Negotiations are happening already and they will continue to go forward,” he said.

Ellison is evidently well informed on the strategy. However, Turkey’s acceptance of the missile-defense plan may not be realistic, given the risk to its relations with Russia, already frayed by other tensions. Turkey may be a U.S. ally, but Russia supplies the majority of its energy and has a hand in Turkey’s future in the Caucasus.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's Aug. 6 visit to Ankara for talks with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan secured some 20 agreements covering energy, trade and other areas, including nuclear cooperation. Russian authorities have also agreed to scrap regulations requiring the full inspection of Turkish goods at customs.

Turkey has been playing a very careful game for some time when it comes to its relations with Russia. Ankara does not want to make an enemy out of Moscow.

Accepting the deployment of U.S. defense shields in Turkey would be a major step toward a whole new round of tense Turkish-Russian relations at a critical and vulnerable time. Russia would probably play its energy card against Turkey and could even annul this year’s previous agreements.

The deployment could also have a negative impact on Turkey’s relations with its neighboring countries in the Middle East. Starting with the Turkish Parliament’s March 2003 decision to prevent the United States from invading Iraq through Turkish territory, Turkey has been trying to follow a relatively independent line in its foreign policy. Acceptance of the missile shield would destroy most of Turkey’s diplomatic capital among Middle Eastern countries, which perceived Turkey as making its own decisions after the 2003 bill.

There is another scenario that sounds more realistic: Turkey currently has no defense against ballistic missiles. According to past news reports, Turkey has been planning to purchase a missile-defense system for some time. Turkey has begun “preliminary talks with the United States, Russia, Israel and China with regard to its plans to buy its first missile defense system, worth more than $1 billion,” wrote the Daily News last year.

This invites the question: Is missile defense a matter of packaging? Might Turkey avoid allowing the United States to install a missile-defense system on her soil? Rather, might the rumors circulating stem from a bid by Turkey to buy a missile-defense system for herself?

It is hard to imagine the difference would calm Russia. It is known that Russia is firmly against any U.S. missile shields in Turkey, just as it is against the installations in Central Europe. And despite its determination to expand its military capabilities, Turkey would probably like to stay out of the struggle between Washington and Moscow.


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