Will Turkey experience déjà vu as F-35 crisis places alliances in peril?

Turkey has found itself at a crossroads over its decision to purchase Russian-built S-400 missile defence systems, with its U.S. allies on the verge of halting the transfer of F-35 jets over the issue.

Another incident more than a century ago that parallels the F-35 situation demonstrates how the crisis could have far deeper implications for Turkey and the NATO alliance than the ownership of fighter aircraft.

Following the seizure of power in 1908 by modernisers known as the Young Turks, the Ottoman Empire embarked on a naval arms race with Greece in the Aegean Sea, determined to modernise its aging navy.

The Ottoman Navy ordered two battleships from British shipyards in 1911. Three years later, an Ottoman delegation travelled to London to take possession of the warships, Sultan Osman and Reşadiye.

With the final instalment paid, the delegation waited expectantly for the two warships, which already had Ottoman flags waving from their masts. Their wait would be in vain.

On August 1, 1914, three days after World War One broke out, the British government commandeered the two warships and added them to its own fleet.

This action, seen by Ottoman subjects as “British treachery”, helped sway the Turkish public in favour of joining the war on Germany’s side.

Ten days after the British commandeered the vessels, the Allied Navy pursued two German warships from the Mediterranean to the Marmara Sea. After the ships entered Ottoman waters, the empire declared it had purchased them, hoisting its flag on their masts and renaming them “Yavuz Sultan Selim” and “Midilli”. The captain and crew of the warships, however, remained the same.

This proved to be a fateful choice for the Ottoman Empire, which had found a ready supplier in Germany of the warships the British had deprived it off. Naturally, this was reflected in the Ottomans’ choice of allies as the conflict mounted. The Ottoman Empire entered what would be its final war on Germany’s side on October 29, 1914, with an attack on ports belonging to Britain’s Russian allies on the Black Sea.

While there is little danger today that Turkey will be forced to choose sides between warring European empires, the Ottomans’ quest for warships bears certain parallels to its current predicament.

So far, though the Turkish Air Force has formally procured four stealthy new generation F-35 fighter jets, they all remain in the United States for training purposes. Whether Turkey will receive the jets or find itself, like in 1914, deprived of the hardware it has bought and paid for, is still not clear.

The United States outright refuses to send Turkey its orders of F-35 fighter jets if Ankara goes through with its plan to purchase Russian S-400 missile defence systems. U.S. and NATO officials have warned Turkey of their concerns that the Russian-built systems will create a security risk for NATO hardware, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears set on completing the purchase.

The Pentagon suspended deliveries of F-35 equipment to Turkey at the beginning of April, and a letter from Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar last week detailed the following steps leading to Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 programme, setting a deadline of July 31 for Turkey’s decision on the S-400 systems.

All these developments raise the question of whether another frustrated arms purchase could lead Turkey to change its axis, as it did 100 years ago?

Neither side appears ready to back down, and with U.S.-Turkish relations already under severe pressure due to other disagreements, experts have speculated the relationship is on the verge of breakdown.

“Turkey is just another example of the United States demonstrating that it likes partners, but doesn’t need partners,” said Robert Farley, senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.

“I do get the sense that the United States really is willing to walk away; there’s a lot of frustration not just about purchase of S-400s but also about other parts of the relationship, especially over the Kurdish issue,” Farley said.

Turkish and U.S. diplomats are still holding frequent discussions over what appears to be another irreconcilable difference, this time over Kurdish militias in northern Syria. The United States has been backing groups including the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that Ankara views as a security threat due to their links to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sent Turkey mixed messages over Syria, promising a full withdrawal of U.S. troops last December before rowing back his decision the next month and threatening Turkey with economic devastation if it attacked the Kurdish groups.

With tensions high between Ankara and its NATO allies, Turkey’s place in the alliance has come under intense scrutiny.

“The present-day situation is very different. Turkey is among the most important members of NATO. There is therefore no quest for a new alliance,” said Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), an Istanbul-based independent think tank.

“I do not believe that the political tension caused by the S-400 issue will push Turkey to question its NATO membership. This tension will naturally have consequences on Turkish-American relations and as a result Turkey's further relations within NATO. However, I don't see that as a decision point in terms of continuity of alliance membership,” he said.

But Carlo Masala, professor of International Relations at the University of the German Bundeswehr in Munich, believes the issue will have severe consequences that could seriously disrupt and reshape the NATO alliance.

“I think the F-35 issue puts Turkey at the crossroads. If Turkey will not obtain the F-35s, Turkey has to look for other fighter aircraft and, apparently, they are already reaching out to China,” Masala said.

“With Chinese aircraft and a Russian air defence system, the southern flank of NATO is going to collapse. No more integrated air defence, no capabilities for air campaigns.” 

The press in Turkey reported this month that Ankara's security bureaucracy has been considering Russian or Chinese stealth fighters as possible options if the United States halts the transfer of F-35 jets.

“Turkey is turning its back to the North Atlantic alliance, but of course will not leave it, since it won't give up its veto right. This is going to massively complicate NATO policies in the future,” Masala said.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval