Turkey hires U.S. lobbyists to break Congress’s de facto arms embargo

Congressional leaders have blocked major U.S. arms sales to Turkey for almost two years in response to Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems, which the United States says threatens the F-35 fighter jet’s stealth capabilities. Turkey was subsequently ejected from the joint F-35 programme.

The congressional hold on arms sales, first reported last week by Defense News, has also impacted other key priorities of the Turkish military sector including structural upgrades to its F-16 fighter jets and Turkey’s $1.5 billion sale of attack helicopters to Pakistan.

Concerned by the continued delay of the sale to Pakistan, filings required by the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act show that the government-owned Turkish Aerospace Industries hired one of Ankara’s go-to U.S. law firms, Greenberg Traurig LLP, and its frequent subcontractor, Capital Counsel LLC,  to lobby the relevant congressional leaders and the White House to secure the requisite export licences.

According to the contract, Greenberg Traurig and its subcontractor will be paid a monthly retainer of $25,000 to conduct meetings “with all relevant Committees in Congress, including meetings with the Chairmen, Ranking Members and the members of Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee to ensure United States legal and governmental compliance for the sale of helicopter parts for the T129 ATAK helicopter to the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps (PAAC) or to any other third party”.

The U.S. Arms Export Control Act requires the White House to formally notify Congress of arms sales that exceed $25 million, giving legislators an opportunity to enact a joint resolution to oppose the sale. Notification is usually preceded by informal consultations with congressional leaders, affording the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFRC) an opportunity to put an informal hold on objectionable sales.

SFRC Chairman Jim Risch and HFRC ranking member Representative Mike McCaul told Defense News that they are participating in the informal hold. HFRC Chairman Eliot Engel and SFRC ranking member Senator Bob Menendez would not comment for Defense News, but multiple Capitol Hill sources confirmed they are also a part of the hold. Such holds are rarely discussed in public.

“There is serious concern over [Turkey’s purchase of the S-400] in both parties and in both chambers on the Hill, and until the issues surrounding this purchase are resolved I cannot and will not support weapon sales to Turkey,” Risch said. He has not signed off on any deals involving Turkey since Ankara took its first delivery of S-400s in July 2019.

Congressional leaders have been frustrated by the White House’s refusal to implement sanctions against Turkey for the purchase of Russian S-400s under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

However, in lieu of sanctions, it appears that Congress’s de facto arms embargo on Turkey is beginning to cause serious challenges for Ankara. To complete its sale of 30 T129 helicopters to Pakistan, Turkish Aerospace Industries needs U.S. export licences for the gunships’ U.S.-made engines.

In January, Pakistan extended the deadline for delivery of the helicopters by one year. Turkish officials expressed confidence at the time that they could make progress either on developing an indigenous engine or securing the necessary U.S. export licence. However, developing a new engine is unlikely to be accomplished in such a short time frame and Ankara’s move to hire U.S. lobbyists to pursue the export licence may suggest it is worried about meeting the new deadline.

Relations with Pakistan are important to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as he seeks to reorient Turkish foreign policy away from its traditional alignment with the United States and Europe as a NATO member and long time aspirant of ascension to the European Union. Erdoğan has also sought greater defence and economic independence, making major arms deals like the helicopter sale a priority.

Greenberg Traurig, which the Turkish government has further hired to provide general lobbying services to the tune of $1.538 million in 2020 alone, will lobby to secure the export licence Turkish Aerospace needs from July 15 to November 15, with an option to extend for additional seven month periods. The initial period of the contract reflects the timing of the U.S. presidential election.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been Erdoğan’s indispensable ally during his presidency and, despite bipartisan anger towards several Turkish foreign policy actions, Republican congressional leaders have been reluctant to take concrete action to confront the president on Turkey. But Trump is lagging behind his far less pro-Erdoğan challenger in the polls for the November 3 election.

In recently publicised interview clips with the New York Times, Trump’s Democratic challenger, former Vice-President Joe Biden, has expressed a decidedly harsher opinion of Erdoğan, calling him an “autocrat” and criticising his domestic and foreign policies. The timing of Turkish Aerospace’s engagement with Greenberg Traurig may reflect concern in Ankara that time is running out to leverage Erdoğan’s cosy relationship with Trump to secure the U.S. president’s help in overcoming Congress’s de facto arms embargo.

Trump did veto similar congressional efforts to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE last year and he could do the same for Turkey. Recognising the importance of the White House in the arms sales process, Turkish Aerospace’s has directed Greenberg Traurig to engage directly with the executive branch in addition to lobbying Congress.

The contract also tasks the lobbying firm to meet “with labour unions in order to make them speak about the employment opportunities which will be created as a result of issuance of engine re-export license”. The U.S. defence industry is a powerful lobbying force in Washington and may be eager to coordinate pressure on the U.S. government to approve sales to Turkey.

The structural upgrades to 35 of Turkey’s ageing F-16 jets are being conducted by the U.S.’s defence giant Lockheed Martin. The company’s contract with Turkey expires this autumn, but, according to Defense News, the project will take until 2023 to complete. If Congress maintains its de facto embargo on approving new deals, Lockheed may be motivated to join lobbying efforts to convince Trump to intervene and break the congressional freeze.

With the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election uncertain, Turkey and interested U.S. companies may further ratchet up pressure on the White House to take action sooner rather than later.

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