Tensions are growing between Turkey and the United States over Ankara’s decision to purchase a missile defense system from Russia. Regional experts fear Washington could remove Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet programme and slap it with heavy economic sanctions, which could have serious consequences for it.
According to media reports, the US government is debating how it should respond to the Turks, committed to buying the S-400 defence system, and how they can manage the coming trainwreck’s aftermath? In other words, they are trying to find out how Washington’s relations with Turkey can be rescued from the brink of collapse. According to the Turkish media, Washington can remove Turkey from the F-35 programme and slap heavy economic sanctions on it. If the US chooses the option, which the Pentagon and the Congress advocate, July 2019 will be remembered as a historic breaking point in bilateral relations, observed an article in the Daily Sabah, a leading Turkish newspaper.
The second option would involve Turkey’s removal from the F-35 programme without further punitive steps. In the case, the administration would have to stop the Congress from passing aggressive resolutions against Ankara. The US could thus prevent Turkey from further strengthening its defence cooperation with Russia. It would also leave room for recovery. The third and final option is to accept Turkey’s offer by forming a joint committee on the S-400 system and maintaining cooperation on the F-35 programme and elsewhere. For a long time, Ankara has been keeping a lid on tensions with Washington by compartmentalizing the relationship. Washington, however, did not keep any of its promises to the Turks since 2013 and ignored Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. Washington avoided taking steps to address Turkish grievances regarding the Halkbank case, the Manbij agreement, Fetullah Gülen’s extradition or military support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG). A proposed safe zone in northern Syria, too, remains on the table. Media reports of Washington delivering armored vehicles to YPG militants have also aggravated tensions between the two countries.
Turkey and the US are steadily moving on a collision course. There have been a number of controversial issues between the two NATO allies. Some of them are stagnant conflicts. One of them is the protracted conflict of interests between the US and Turkey in Syria. The two countries’ national interests in Syria are concurrent in some areas and divergent in others. They agree, to a certain extent, that Bashar al-Assad should not have a role in Syria’s future, but the US believes there is no better alternative than Assad for the moment, while Turkey insists on not cooperating with Damascus despite their convergent interests on the Kurdish issue. On the other hand, Turkey is fiercely opposed to the US arming, equipping and training Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that Ankara considers a terrorist organization, wrote Yasar Yakis, a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party, in the Arab News.
The second issue is in the Eastern Mediterranean. US-based oil and gas exploration companies Noble Energy and ExxonMobil have discovered rich oil reserves off the Cyprus coast and the former is among the signatories to a $9.3 billion deal to extract and export gas. Turkey informed the international community that it believes the natural resources of Cyprus should be shared with the Turkish Cypriots and that the Nicosia government has no authority to ignore the Turkish community’s rights. Turkish Cypriots asked a Turkish company to explore for gas off the coast of Cyprus and in Turkey’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The coordinates of the zone were communicated to the UN Secretary General. A Turkish ship is carrying out the exploration and is protected by the Turkish navy. The third and most imminent problem between the US and Turkey is the S-400 versus F-35 issue.
Washington is strongly opposed to Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defence system on the grounds that it might identify the weaknesses of the American aircraft. Turkey rejects the reasoning, saying that the same system is deployed in the Russian Hmeimim air base in Syria, so it may identify the F-35’s weaknesses when it flies in the nearby Israeli airspace. Ankara proposed the setting up of a technical committee to allow experts to discuss the issue. The Pentagon objected to the proposal but, in a telephone conversation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan persuaded his US counterpart Donald Trump. However, since the American members of any technical committee would be the same Pentagon experts who rejected the idea, it is unlikely that the Turkish experts would be able to convince them, he noted.
While the setting up of the committee was being discussed between the two capitals, US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan sent a letter to his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar repeating that Ankara’s decision to move ahead with the S-400 purchase would likely result in sanctions. The Turkish Defense Ministry, referring to Shanahan’s letter, says on its website that the US “expresses its expectation to find a solution to the existing problem within the framework of the strategic partnership between the two countries and that will preserve the comprehensive security cooperation and emphasizes the importance of the continuation of the talks.” This optimistic way of summarizing Shanahan’s threatening letter is a last-minute attempt by Turkey to salvage whatever is left of the moribund relations between the two NATO allies.
Experts fear another set of sanctions could be imposed on Turkey by the US Congress. There is a bipartisan initiative in both chambers of the Congress to impose on Turkey Russia-related sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Trump has to choose at least five of 12 sanctions to be imposed on a country as per the provisions of the law. The US has threatened to impose an embargo on Turkey in various areas. Having weaponized its economy against China, Washington could resort to the same method to tame Turkey.