It can be argued that US/Turkish relations haven’t been as bad as this since the two nations were enemies during World War One. The US has cut Turkey off from high technology US weapons like the F-35 aircraft, but complains when Turkey looks towards Russia for arms. Yet, Turkey is clearly taking a more aggressive regional role that is bothering the US, along with several Middle Eastern and European nations.
Is this just a disagreement between friends? Or is it the end of a long alliance?
The problem is that there is more than just one issue standing between the two nations – issues that go back years. And, it has been US administrations from both sides of the aisle that are guilty of ignoring the problems.
The result is a storm of anti-Turkey actions from Washington. The Trump administration just announced a decision to impose sanctions on two Turkish cabinet officials in response to Turkey’s continued detention of an American pastor. The final version of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House and the Senate last week, contains a handful of provisions that take aim at Turkey, which is officially a NATO ally but could be called “the worst of friends.”
Arms for Turkey
One issue is Turkey’s plan to simultaneously purchase two weapons systems – one from the US and one from Russia - that would have long-term strategic implications for the United States and its most allies. The Senate version of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act contains a provision calling for Turkey to be sanctioned if it completes the purchase of Russia’s S-400 long-range air- and missile-defense system. Another provision directs the Pentagon to submit a plan to Congress to remove Turkey from participation in the F-35 Lightning II program.
The House version, for its part, would halt all weapons sales to Turkey until the Pentagon analyzes the worsening tensions between the two nations.
Turkey’s desire to acquire both the F-35 and the S-400 has set off alarm bells in Washington and beyond, because the two systems were designed to counter each other.
The fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet with stealth capabilities is considered by many to be the best multi-role combat aircraft in the world. However, the Russia-made S-400 is considered by many to be the most advanced air-defense system in use. The S-400 would pose a significant challenge to the air combat capabilities of the U.S. and its allies - including those that fly the F-35.
The problem isn’t merely the fact that Turkey is purchasing a surface-to-air-missile (SAM) system from Russia. Unlike the Patriot SAM system that Ankara rejected, the S-400 doesn’t integrate within NATO’s military infrastructure. This leads observers to question why Turkey would pursue a deal with Russia at the expense of its supposed allies, especially if doing so wouldn’t improve NATO’s collective air defenses – especially against NATO’s biggest challenge, Russia.
NATO is also worried about F-35 secrets finding their way to Moscow. For instance, Russia’s S-400 radar can act as a platform to collect electronic and signal intelligence from the F-35. By operating both systems together, Turkey could test and share information about the limitations or advantages of the F-35 over the S-400. That is valuable intelligence it might choose to share with its newfound partners in Moscow and Tehran rather than with NATO. The result would be an optimized S-400 system able to detect aircraft from an even greater range, with a deeper understanding of how the top-shelf U.S. fighter plane operates.
The problem isn’t related to military hardware technology. It also impacts US foreign policy, especially in Syria, where Russian, Syrian, Turkish, American, and Israeli aircraft are operating. Americans are worried that some secrets may find their way to Moscow, Damascus, or Tehran, which could mean success or failure for an American mission.
In May, Israel Air Force (IAF) commander Major General Amikam Norkin disclosed that the F-35 had already participated in two airstrikes over the Middle East, making Israel the first country to operate an F-35 in combat.
While Israel is now relying on the F-35 for air superiority in Syria, Russia has brought in the S-400 system to protect its expanded Hmeimim airbase along the coast. This means that Russia is already gathering intelligence on a future US F-35 vs. Russian S-400 conflict.
Given the unreliability of Turkey as a NATO ally and the current use of the F-35 by Israel, there is a chance that the first time the US F-35 goes into an area covered by the S-400, the American pilots could lose. This includes any Iranian nuclear facilities or Iranian assets guarding the Strait of Hormuz.
Turkey’s Disappearing Nuclear Umbrella
Another sign of the deteriorating US-Turkish relations is the report that the US has moved its arsenal of nuclear bombs from the Incirlik Air Base out of Turkey. These had been put in place as a solid guarantee that the US would come to Turkey’s aid if invaded by Russia.
Of course, the Russian threat is much less today. Most analysts think that Turkish invasions of Greek islands, Kurdish territory in Iraq, or more of Syria are more likely. However, their move indicates that the US may not be willing to fulfill its obligations in regards to Turkey under the NATO treaty.
Turkey’s Unstable Economy
One problem for Erdogan is Turkey’s precarious economic situation. Turkey’s currency, the Lira, is collapsing and Turkish government bonds are requiring yields of about 20% to attract buyers. Goldman Sachs has warned that Turkish banks could face considerable problems if this continues.
And, as is always the case, a national leader in economic trouble often finds an outside force to blame economic problems on. And, in Erdogan’s case, the US and the Trump Administration fit the bill.
The Diplomatic Dance
There has always been some tension about Turkey’s leadership in the Middle East. The US has traditionally favored its NATO ally, Turkey, over other countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. However, that has changed, especially in regard to Saudi Arabia and its crown prince.
With the Trump Administration’s current infatuation with Saudi Arabia and the feckless nature of Turkish president Erdogan, US/Turkish relations have gone sour.
The diplomatic dance over Syria has given Russian president Putin more influence than being the purveyor of the S-400 would. Turkish president Erdogan met with the Russian leader in late July, on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in South Africa, to further their cooperation. And days before the Helsinki summit in which President Trump and President Putin discussed Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again met with Putin to impress upon him the need to force Iran out of Syria (of course, Israel hopes to at least keep Russia and the S-400 on the Syrian sidelines as it continues to target Iranian or Syrian assets).
Erdogan isn’t the most subtle of diplomats. Whenever he has seen an opportunity to exploit the weakness of a U.S. ally, he has taken advantage, whether it was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood against the Egypt or siding with Qatar when the Gulf States had isolated the kingdom. He is hostile to Greece and Cyprus, even as he moves closer to Russia, Iran, and China. And, in a change in Turkey’s pro-Israel tradition, he has strained relations with its government.
Turkey has also refused to comply with sanctions against Iran, because Erdogan considers the regime in Tehran to be Turkey’s “strategic partner.”
Another block to better relations has been Erdogan’s use of American detainees as bargaining chips. Andrew Brunson, an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor from North Carolina, was arrested in Turkey in 2016, during the regime’s crackdown on journalists, academics, and Christian minorities. He was released on house arrest last Wednesday, but Erdogan won’t let him go free. Another wrinkle in the story developed over the weekend when it came to light that as part of a trade for the pastor’s release, President Trump asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to release a Turkish national arrested earlier in July on terrorism-related charges. Netanyahu complied the following day, but Erdogan failed to hold up his end of the deal. This lead to the Trump administration’s decision to sanction Turkey’s justice and interior ministers.
It was not exactly the actions one would expect from the Turkish president if he were trying to gain favor in Washington. Reneging on a release negotiation while openly courting America’s enemies is adversarial behavior in any nation’s books.
Obviously, the problem runs far deeper than the matter of Brunson, but if such behavior is any indication of what the future holds, there’s little reason for the U.S. to afford Turkey any kind of preferential treatment.
What does the Future Hold?
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey now has imperial ambitions that include re-creating a version of the Ottoman Empire. In this sense, he has far more in common with Vladimir Putin, who seeks to redraw the map of Europe in the service of his vision of “Eurasia from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” as Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called it.
In that sense it isn’t just F-35s and S-400s that should have Washington worried; it’s everything about the U.S.-Turkish relationship.
Nor, is it just the US and President Trump that is the only problem. Erdogan’s relations with the EU have soured so much that Turkish entry into the EU has been put on hold.
Some European-Turkish conflicts have overshadowed Trump and Erdogan. Last year Turkish authorities prevented German Parliamentarians from visiting the Incirlik Air base, where there was a German military unit. The unit was later moved to Jordan.
Both Europe and the US are concerned about Erdogan’s drift away from the West’s core commitments and his rapid move toward an authoritarianism that has led many Turkish NATO officers to ask for asylum. The recent episode with Pastor Brunson is just par for the course, not an aberration or passing episode.
Turkey’s relations have also gone from bad to worse with its neighbor Greece, where daily encroachments by Turkish military aircraft into Greek airspace are becoming common. And, there are the ongoing disputes with Syria and President Assad on Turkish occupation of parts of northern Syria.
Although the US Embassy in Turkey just this week said, “Despite current tensions, the United States continues to be a solid friend and ally of Turkey. Our countries have a vibrant economic relationship,” many are calling for a review of American relations with Turkey.
Washington’s view (both in the White House and on Capitol Hill) is that as long as Turkey continues to prioritize its temporary alliances with Russia and Iran over its relationship with NATO, the U.S. should downgrade its ties and take its own punitive measures. That means the F-35 will be off the table for the foreseeable future and NATO relations will continue to cool until there is a change in Ankara.
However, don’t expect to see any formal breaks with the US, Europe, or NATO. The West will likely treat Turkey as an unruly teenaged son and try to wait out Erdogan’s presidency. However, don’t expect improved relations in the near future. After all, the United States didn’t reestablish relations with Turkey until 1927, nine years after WWI ended.