Yaşar Yakış
Jul 26 2018

Are the Turkey-US relations at a new crossroads

Two months ago both chambers of the U.S. Congress adopted parallel amendments to the National Defence Authorisation Act barring the delivery of the sophisticated F-35 fighter jets to Turkey.

U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis sent letters to Congress trying to tell them not to do so. He explained that Turkey had invested $ 1.25 billion in the development of the aircraft and some of the components were being manufactured in Turkey. If Turkey does not supply these components, it would take approximately two years to find new manufacturers and resume production. It would delay the delivery of 50 to 70 aircraft.

Turkey plans to buy 100 F-35s and the purchase of 30 of them has already been confirmed. One aircraft was delivered to the Turkish Air Force last month and pilots began training in Arizona.

These justifications did not alter the attitude of the Congress and the two amendments are now combined into one.

The congressmen justified their initiative by saying that, if the F-35s were sold to Turkey, Russia could gain access to its secrets. Experts have warned for months that, if Turkey purchases the Russian S-400 air defence system and deploys it, Russian experts would effectively be able to spy on the F-35s.

After the combined text is voted at the Senate and House of Representatives, it will be submitted to the presidential approval. The amendment provides that the Pentagon will submit to Congress, within 90 days of passing the bill, a report assessing U.S. strategic relations with Turkey, including the impact of the S-400 purchase, and covering all pending military sales to Turkey and the effects if Turkey is cut out of the F-35 programme.

The delivery to Turkey of the F-35 fighters will be held in abeyance until this report is sent to Congress.

Since the secretary of defence has already conveyed his opposition to this move, we may presume that the tone of the report to be submitted by the Pentagon will be in favour of releasing the delivery, so the exercise looks more like a delaying tactic than a real attempt to stop the delivery. In fact, even after the news of the congressional approval was disclosed, the manufacturer Lockheed Martin looked confident that the delivery of the F-35s to Turkey would not be blocked.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, dismissed on Tuesday reports about the initiative and said he had raised this issue during talks with U.S. President Donald Trump at the NATO summit and that the latter had told him he was against stopping the delivery.

Regardless of whether Trump approves it, this animosity against Turkey will remain nestled in the Congress and may surface again at any moment. For instance, Congress might insist in restricting the use of F-35s by Turkey by not providing necessary updates to the aircraft’s sophisticated communication system. This would further escalate the mutual distrust between the two allies.

The first sign of this distrust is that American pastor Brunson was moved to house arrest; Turkey may still keep this trump card in its hand in case it is needed.  

The distrust may also affect Turkey-U.S. cooperation in Syria to expel the People Protection Units’ (PYD) fighters from the northern Syrian district of Manbij. Ankara uses conciliatory language on the implementation of the bilateral agreement on this subject, but the number of the PYD fighters that will leave Manbij remains a mystery. There are reports saying that many of them will come back through other paths.

As bilateral tensions between Turkey and the United States become more complex, both sides may look for opportunities to harm the other’s interests. They have bigger interests in trying to find creative ways to defuse tensions. Otherwise, Turkey-U.S. relations will remain bogged down in unnecessary conflicts and this will have wider negative implications on Turkey’s relations with the Euro-Atlantic community. If Turkey is forced to drift away from this community, neither side will gain.  

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