F-35 jet imbroglio between the U.S. and Turkey

As tensions between the United States and Turkey simmer, though unlikely to boil over before June 24 Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, debate over the delivery of U.S. F-35 advanced combat aircraft to Turkey is becoming a measure of the relationship between the NATO allies.  

Many hoped Turkish Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Washington this week would produce demonstrably better relations between the United States and Turkey. But it appears the two sides will continue to paper over tensions without resolving their underlying causes.

The paucity of official public statements from both the United States and Turkey make this plain to see. Both sides have a strong interest in trumpeting progress on resolving differences, and if they had achieved progress they would have touted it loudly. Thus we can reasonably assume there was no resolution to most causes of tension. As for comments on the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish forces from the town of Manbij, it will be several months before we can say whether northern Syria is still an irritant between them.   

The issue of the extradition of Fethullah Gülen remains. Even less was said publicly about how Turkey responds to the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the re-imposition of sanctions against Tehran and on those doing business with the Islamic Republic. Likewise, little was said regarding Turkey’s detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson and Ankara’s decision to buy Russian S-400 air defence missiles. Both issues have led members of Congress to suggest that Turkey should not receive any of the F-35s that it has contracted for.  

More troubling in the case of the F-35s and for the U.S. attitude towards Turkey are recent comments by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs A. Wess Mitchell delivered at a Heritage Foundation forum after Çavuşoğlu’s visit.

Members of Congress have often several motivations for introducing legislation. In the case of prohibiting the transfer of F-35s to Turkey, it is most likely a combination of responding to constituents’ concerns over the mistreatment of Brunson and national security experts’ concerns about Turkey getting closer to Russia.

No member of Congress wants to be seen as disabling the F-35 programme, of which Turkey is a key partner and to which many Turkish companies make vital contributions, lest their constituents and U.S. companies are adversely affected by Turkey’s exclusion. Congress members know that suspending or delaying the delivery of the F-35s that Turkey has contracted for would cause chaos for the F-35 programme and the U.S. companies involved.  More importantly, denying the transfer of planes to a NATO Ally, questions the consensus-driven decision-making process inherent in the Atlantic alliance. Thus, it is more likely that members of Congress are demonstrating discontent about the Brunson case and the S-400 purchase, but will not pass legislation prohibiting the transfer of F-35s, or will pass it with a provision granting the president authority to waive the prohibition for national security reasons.  The final decision to proceed or not proceed will most likely remain ultimately with President Trump.

That makes Mitchell’s comments to the  Heritage foundation worth analysing. Mitchell said Turkey was aware of the consequences of proceeding with the purchase Russian S-400 missiles. Mitchell founded and for several years led the Center for European Policy Analysis think-tank. The centre looked upon Russia as a threat to the Transatlantic community. One surmises that from his perch at the State Department overseeing U.S. relations with Russia and Turkey, among 50 other countries, Mitchell has viewed the increasingly cosy relations between Moscow and Ankara with some concern.

His recent comments at Heritage Foundation reveals his conviction that countries cooperating with Russia are suspect of undermining not reinforcing the security of the NATO and the wider Transatlantic community. Given his position, Mitchell’s voice is prominent in discussion and policy formulation regarding both Russia and Turkey. While one may assume that calls by members of Congress for the cancellation of the transfer of F-35s to Turkey will be weighed against the financial interests of many U.S. companies and their employees, Mitchell’s reference to consequences reflects an ideological basis for an expectation that members of the alliance work in concert and not becomes entangled with countries like Russia.

If Congress does pass legislation to prohibit the delivery or transfer of F-35s to Turkey without a presidential waiver, Turkey may find itself dealing with a State Department unenthusiastic in supporting a waiver based on Turkey’s S-400 purchase.

The delivery of the first F-35 on or about June 21 will most likely proceed regardless of the opposition by some members of Congress and some voices within the unofficial foreign policy community. Decisions on further deliveries will be influenced less by the Brunson case and the Gülen extradition issue than Turkey’s foreign policy trajectory with regard to Russia and Iran.  

If senior foreign policy advisors throughout the U.S. executive branch become convinced that Turkey, not just the current president and his party, has turned its back on the United States and the Atlantic alliance, then a chaotic disruption of the F-35 programme may be considered a price worth paying to save the alliance from being undermined by one member’s links to a country, Russia, fundamentally at odds with the values and standards of behaviour of the alliance.

Given the unforeseeable nature of the consequences of suspending a member of the alliance, one must hope that the United States and Turkey restrain themselves from bellicose rhetoric and, following the June 24 elections, renew efforts to resolve their differences.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.