Who is İsmail Demir, Turkey’s undersecretary of defence and target of U.S. sanctions?

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S would be sanctioning Turkey for it's purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia, ending an 18 month guessing game of when or if this would happen before the Trump administration left office. The target of the sanctions would be the Turkish Defence Industries Directorate (SSB) and its head, İsmail Demir.

Reuters reported on Saturday that the United States was poised to impose sanctions on Demir for the purchase and this was ultimately confirmed with the new announcement.

What do we know about Demir and his role in Turkey’s defence industry?

The SSB is the Turkish military’s top body for defence project development and industrial participation and was involved in more than 600 projects as of the end of 2018. Demir has been its chairman since 2014, after working as head of Turkish Airlines’ maintenance and repair unit.

Demir is a professor, holding a bachelor’s degree from Istanbul Technical University, an MSc in Applied Mechanics from Michigan University and another in Aeronautical Engineering from Purdue University, and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Washington State University. 

From 1992-2003 he worked at various universities and research institutes in Saudi Arabia, the U.S.A. and Canada before being appointed Training Director at Turkish Airlines. He quickly progressed to vice-CEO in 2005 and later to chief executive of Turkish Technic (TA’s maintenance and repair unit) in 2006. 

The SSB was renamed and reorganised in 2018, and it became affiliated with the Presidency following the Turkish constitutional referendum which allowed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consolidate power in his executive presidency in 2017. The aim of the reorganisation was to develop a modern defence industry and create new weapons for the Turkish Armed Forces.

In 2016, Demir gave a talk at the Atlantic Council about Turkey’s defence industrial policy which you can watch online.

Demir talked about growing up in Eskişehir, with the sound of fighter jets flying over where he lived. He says he used to ask defense companies for pictures of fighter jets to put on his bedroom wall. 

“Whatever is going on in terms of internal politics in Turkey, there is one basic policy that will not change. That policy is that Turkey is a strong ally of the West. This is the one determined policy. We know there are ups and downs and differences of opinion, but Turkey does not have any other direction to go. Of course we will try to settle our differences, and there will be some differences, but that main policy will not change, and will be based on rule of law, democracy, human rights and those kind of values that all humanity commonly hold”, Demir told the Atlantic Council.

Demir comes across as more of an academic and a businessman than a political figure. Targeting him for a procurement policy that would have had to come from the Turkish Presidency seems like a symbolic warning from the U.S, rather than seeking to materially punish Turkey.

Turkey’s pro-government media has argued that Turkey only purchased Russian S-400 missiles after the United States refused to sell Turkey the Patriot missile system. After coming under pressure to issue sanctions last year for the purchase, President Trump echoed this same argument. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has described the sanctions as “disrespectful to a very important NATO partner”.

After the sanctions announcement, Demir wrote on Twitter that the sanctions will not alter plans for an independent arms industry regardless of how much it impacted him personally. 

"Any decision taken abroad towards me or our institution will not change the stance of me or my team," Demir tweeted after the sanctions announcement. "It will not be able to prevent the Turkish industry in any way."