Analysis

Erdogan’s Next Front: The White House

The rift between Turkey and America could reach the point of no return with the U.S. threatening sanctions after Turkey's refusal to void Russia deal

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes the supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party during a rally in Konya, Turkey, March 22, 2019.
AP

Washington didn’t give Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan so much as a single day to rest on his thorny laurels following the local election. On Monday, the U.S. advised that it was suspending a shipment of crucial equipment needed to prepare for the arrival of the F-35 stealth jets that Turkey bought from Lockheed Martin. Until now, the administration had settled for warnings against the agreement Turkey signed to buy S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia, but this time Washington imposed a concrete sanction.

The State Department spokesperson also issued a stern warning that Turkey would face other sanctions too if it doesn’t void the deal with Russia. In the mean time congress has already introduced a bill demanding that sales of the stealth fighter to Turkey be suspended until Turkey promises to cancel the Russian deal. Meanwhile, representatives from NATO who convened in Washington last week clarified that the deployment of Russian anti-aircraft missiles constitutes a real threat to NATO’s defense, because these systems could collect information on the defense systems of NATO’s jets. Senior NATO people say the organization will have to consider whether to include Turkey in joint training or planning designed to serve the defense strategy against Russia.

Reports this week said the Pentagon halted training Turkish pilots on the F-35, though the Pentagon denied these claims. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan tried to soothe tensions by saying he is confident that Turkey will ultimately buy U.S.-made Patriot missiles and forgo the S-400s, but meanwhile, the U.S. is considering canceling Turkey’s membership in the jet construction project. It is not clear on what Shanahan’s optimism is based, but on Friday Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu said that the deal with Russia will be honored. 

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Canceling the F-35s deal would badly hurt Lockheed-Martin and Turkey as well. As a member of the development project, Turkey is supposed to manufacture parts for it, including part of the fuselage and landing system, and part of the cockpit. But the issue of financial damage and compensation is secondary to the strategic and political dilemma.

The Russian missile affair instills fears in the west, the U.S. in particular, in regards to Turkey’s strategic intentions. Does it intend to leave NATO and turn its military and economic cooperation with Russia into a strategic alliance? Or is Erdogan trying, through pressure on the U.S., to gain achievements on two matters that the Turkish president defined as crucial to its defense – one being defending the southern boundary where Turkey borders on Kurdish Syria, the other being Trump’s demand that Turkey extradite Islamic preacher and scholar Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan holds responsible for the military coup attempt that failed in 2016. From Turkey’s perspective, the most urgent thing is to end American support and protection for Kurdish rebels – and American pressure on Ankara, versus its ambition of seizing control over the Kurdish enclaves east of the Euphrates in Syrian soil, in order to “cleanse” the area of terrorist organizations, as Erdogan calls the Kurdish rebels.

But the fabric of ties and obligations between Turkey and Russia exacerbate the suspicion that this isn’t just an attempt to bend Washington’s arm, as a long-term move. Among other things there are reports that Turkey may buy fifth-generation SU-57E jets from Russia, which are considered a good substitute for the F-35, and are 40 percent cheaper to boot. Ankara has also shown interest in S-500 anti-aircraft missiles.

In parallel with the Russian missile affair, Turkey’s tactical importance as a host nation for NATO planes at its air force base at Incerlik is diminishing. The U.S. moved some jets to Afghanistan, and a year and a half ago, Germany decided to move its planes to Jordan after Turkey banned German parliamentarians from visiting the base. Recently Turkey and Russia discussed waiving visas for Russians visiting Turkey and in February Russia waived visas for Turkish citizens. On the other hand, the U.S. has condemned Turkey’s conquest of Afrin in the Kurdish enclave in Syria. Russia for its part did not interfere, and even removed its forces from the area, to avoid friction with Turkish forces.

The exchange of blows between Washington and Ankara tests America’s strategic gains from Turkey and feeds concerns over Turkey slipping into the Russian sphere of influence, in addition to further shaking America’s status in the Middle East. This status has traditionally relied on two masters – Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Turkey as a bulwark against the spread of Russian influence and Saudi Arabia as the vanguard of American policy in the Middle East and as a defense against Iran. Saudi Arabia’s status in the United States and the west was weakened as a result of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi but the kingdom remains a partner and ally in the fight against Iran, which is also developing broader military and economic ties with Russia.

Turkey, which maintains close ties with Iran and Russia, is no longer seen as a firm anchor of American strategy. Trump’s foreign policy can hardly be attributed to strategic rationality, and when personal relationships and powerful ego dictate his policy – like Erdogan’s, we may assume that the rift between Turkey and America could reach the point of no return.