This article was published in Arab News on June 16, 2019.
Little cause for optimism as Turkey, US set to collide
Turkey and the US are steadily moving toward each other on a collision course. There have been a number of controversial issues between these two NATO allies. Some of them are stagnant conflicts. This article will focus on three burning issues.
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 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.
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 this zone were communicated to the UN Secretary General. A Turkish ship is carrying out this 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 defense system on the grounds that it might identify the weaknesses of the American aircraft. Turkey rejects this 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 this 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.
While the setting up of the committee was being discussed between the two capitals, US Secretary of Defense 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.
In the meantime, Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program will be suspended as of July 31 and 42 students being trained in Arizona will be required to depart. From that date, Turkish air force personnel will be prohibited from entering the US bases where training programs are being conducted. The training of a second group has also been canceled as Turkey is suspended from the F-35 program. Turkey was not invited to the June 12 round-table meeting of government officials and industry leaders to discuss the performance and direction of the program. And Turkish industry, which was manufacturing 937 components for the aircraft, will not receive any new orders. For several of them, Turkish companies were the sole manufacturer.
Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program will be suspended as of July 31 and 42 students being trained in Arizona will be required to depart.
Meanwhile, 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 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 these two NATO allies.
Whether this optimistic interpretation will be able to prevent the train crash remains to be seen.