This article was published in Arab News on July 21, 2019.
Turkey, US need to find solid ground
A new step has been taken toward the unknown in Turkish-US relations with the statement issued last week by the White House and the Pentagon. The US decided to suspend Turkey’s participation in the manufacture of F-35 super fighters. It looked like a slow-motion train crash. Every knowledgeable decision-maker was aware that the crash was going to occur, but did little to avoid it.
US President Donald Trump last week recapped the background of the crisis, based on the information given to him by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a Cabinet meeting at the White House. He said, in summary, that Turkey wanted to buy Patriot missiles from the US to protect itself and the Obama administration refused to sell them, whereupon Ankara turned to Russia and purchased the S-400 air defense system. Now the US has had to suspend Turkey’s participation in the manufacture of the sophisticated F-35 super fighter because a country should not have both the S-400 and F-35s at the same time. Turkey had placed an order to buy more than 100 F-35s so Washington’s refusal to sell them means a huge loss of jobs and industrial benefits for the US.
In an almost apologetic tone, Trump said: “It is a very tough situation that they (the Turks) are in, and it is a very tough situation that we’ve been placed in the United States… we’ll see what happens. But it is not really fair.”
As a pragmatic businessman, Trump looked at the matter from the commercial standpoint and said: “Because of the fact that you bought a Russian missile, we’re not allowed to sell them billions of dollars’ worth of aircraft. It’s not a fair situation,” he added, lamenting the jobs that would be lost. “I would say that (F-35 manufacturer) Lockheed is not exactly happy.”
It could not be said more plainly than this.
Despite Trump’s clear position, many ranking congressmen insist the president should also impose tough CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) measures on Turkey. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg disagreed, saying: “Turkey’s contribution to NATO runs much deeper and much broader than the F-35. That is important.”
Parts of the Russian S-400 air defense system arrived last week in Turkey and were stored at the Murted military airport on the outskirts of Ankara. In stark contrast to past practice, the unloading of the equipment took place in the presence of invited TV cameras.
The arrival of parts of the air defense system revived the question of whether Turkey is drifting away from NATO
The most important components of the system, the missiles, will arrive by sea at a later date and the system will be completely installed toward the end of this summer. It is likely to become operational in the early months of next year. The final location of its deployment is still unclear. Murted may be for temporary storage and, using the mobile capacity of the system, the Turkish authorities may move it from one place to another according to the changing threat perception.
The arrival of parts of the air defense system moved the Turkish-US conflict another step higher and revived the question of whether Turkey is drifting away from NATO. The statement by the White House and the Pentagon, after announcing the suspension of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program, made repeated references to the importance of long-term cooperation between Turkey and the US and its multi-layered features. They paid special attention to keeping the door open for Turkey to rejoin the F-35 project if it gives up the deployment of the S-400.
Now that Turkey’s purchase of the F-35s has become uncertain, another discussion is open in Ankara on how to meet the country’s air defense requirements. The US-made F-16 fighter aircraft continues to constitute the main component of the Turkish Air Force’s inventory, but they are reaching the end of their useful life. Therefore, the F-35s were going to become the main body of air defense in the future. Since it takes years — sometimes decades — to plan and implement air defense strategies, the present F-35 crisis has poured cold water into the boiled soup.
Russia did not miss the opportunity. One day after the US announced Turkey’s suspension from the F-35 program, Sergei Chemezov, the head of state conglomerate Rostec, said Russia was ready to sell Turkey its super-maneuverable Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets. China has already purchased 24 of them and Indonesia will receive 11 before the end of this year.
Russia’s readiness to sell Su-35s to Turkey may strengthen Ankara’s hand in its negotiations with the US, but it may also make these negotiations more fragile.
The best option for Turkey and the US is to first de-emotionalize the crisis, to cool it down and look for solid ground where their future relationship may be seated.