US-Turkey relations: Strained over defence system purchase

Khaled Dawoud , Friday 14 Jun 2019

The dispute between the US and Turkey over the purchase of a Russian defence system is only the tip of the iceberg

Russia’s S-400 air defence

Turkey said Tuesday a US House of Representatives resolution condemning Ankara’s purchase of a Russian defence system and urging potential sanctions was unacceptably threatening.

Relations between the two NATO members have been strained on several fronts, including Ankara’s plans to buy Russia’s S-400 air defence system, the detention of US consular staff in Turkey, and the conflicting strategy over Syria and Iran.

The standoff threatens to bring US sanctions, which would hurt Turkey’s already recession-hit economy, and raise questions over its role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

The resolution, introduced in May and entitled “Expressing concern for the United States-Turkey alliance”, was agreed in the House on Monday. It urges Turkey to cancel the S-400 purchase and calls for sanctions if it accepts its delivery, which may come as soon as July. That, the resolution said, would undermine the US-led transatlantic defence alliance.

In response, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that its foreign policy and judicial system were being maligned by “unfair” and “unfounded” allegations in the resolution.

“It is unacceptable to take decisions that do not serve to increase mutual trust, to continue to keep the language of threats and sanctions on the agenda and to set various artificial deadlines,” it added.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a balancing act in its ties with the West and Russia, with which it has close energy ties and is also cooperating in neighbouring Syria. The United States is pressuring Turkey and other nations to isolate Iran, including blocking oil exports.

US officials said Monday the training of Turkish pilots on F-35 fighter jets had come to a faster-than-expected halt at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, as Ankara’s involvement was wound down over the S-400 controversy.

The United States says Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defences poses a threat to Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 stealth fighters, which Turkey also plans to buy.

The United States says Turkey cannot have both.

“We rarely see it in foreign affairs, but this is a black and white issue. There is no middle ground. Either Mr Erdogan cancels the Russian deal, or he doesn’t,” Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said on the House floor Monday.

“There is no future for Turkey having both Russian weapons and American F-35s. There’s no third option,” Engel added.

Regardless of the US warnings, Turkey appeared to be moving ahead with the S-400 purchase. Erdogan said last week it was “out of the question” for Turkey to back away from its deal with Moscow.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said 22 May that Turkish military personnel were receiving training in Russia to use the S-400, and that Russian personnel may go to Turkey.

The move to halt training at Luke Air Force Base came just days after Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told his Turkish counterpart that Turkish pilots already in the United States could remain there until the end of July. That would have allowed time for more training and for Turkey to rethink its plans.

Shanahan’s letter explicitly stated there will be “no new F-35 training”. It noted there were 34 students scheduled for F-35 training later this year. “This training will not occur because we are suspending Turkey from the F-35 programme; there are no longer requirements to gain proficiencies on the systems,” according to an attachment to the letter that is titled, “Unwinding Turkey’s Participation in the F-35 Programme”.

In his letter, Shanahan also warned Ankara that its deal with Moscow risked undermining its ties to NATO, hurting the Turkish economy and creating over-dependence on Russia. “You still have the option to change course on the S-400,” Shanahan wrote.

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the department was aware that the Turkish pilots at Luke were not flying.

“Without a change in Turkish policy, we will continue to work closely with our Turkish ally on winding down their participation in the F-35 programme,” he said.

A second US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that a local commander at Luke decided last week to halt the training of Turkish pilots and maintenance crews over safety concerns. Some training of Turkish maintenance personnel continues at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the official said.

Turkey’s removal from the F-35 programme was one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship with the United States, experts said.

The US decision to stop accepting more Turkish pilots to enter the United States for training had been one of the most concrete signs that the dispute over the F-35 was reaching breaking point.

The Turkish lira declined as much as 1.5 per cent Friday before recovering some losses. The currency has shed nearly 10 per cent of its value against the dollar this year in part on fraying diplomatic ties and the risk of US sanctions if Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400.

Turkey is one of the core partners in the F-35 programme and expressed an interest in buying 100 of the fighters, an order which would have a total value of $9 billion at current prices.

Turkish companies produce some 937 parts of the F-35, largely for the aircraft’s landing gear and centre fuselage, the Pentagon says. The United States is now planning to move that production elsewhere, ending Turkey’s manufacturing role by early next year.

The head of Russian state conglomerate Rostec, Sergei Chemezov, was quoted as saying on Friday that the country would start delivering S-400 missile systems to Turkey in two months.

The S-400 is designed to shoot down an aircraft like the F-35 stealth fighter jet, leaving US technology vulnerable to any Turkish-Russian collaboration.

US officials have urged their Turkish counterparts to back out of the deal because they want Turkey to purchase the Patriot anti-aircraft missile system — possibly at a reduced price.

Moreover, it is feared that S-400 radar technology could provide Russia with access to secret information on the F-35 stealth fighter jet: Turkey’s military would, after all, combine Russian anti-aircraft defence with US warplanes.

Negotiations on the S-400 system have become convoluted mainly because relations between Turkey and the United States have reached an all-time low.

The war in Syria has put relations between the allies to the test. In Syria’s civil war, the US joined forces with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to combat the “Islamic State” terrorist group. Turkish officials, however, call the YPG the Syrian branch of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party — and, therefore, consider the militia a threat.

Another reason for the bad blood between Ankara and Washington is US policy on Iran. Since the beginning of May, nations that import oil from Iran have been subject to sanctions. Until then, exemptions had been in force for eight countries, including Turkey.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Washington shuts out Ankara

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