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David Phillips
Apr 03 2019

Radically re-think relations with Turkey

Turkey’s $2.5-billion purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia violates the NATO principle of inter-operability, undermining the strategic partnership between Turkey and the United States. If Turkey takes delivery of the missiles in July - and there is every indication it will - Washington must reconsider the scope of security and economic cooperation with Ankara. 

The U.S. government is employing a combination of carrots and sticks to dissuade Turkey from buying the S-400s. The Pentagon offered Patriot missiles, a better technology at a lower cost. However, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan missed the March 31 deadline to purchase the Patriots. In a further concession, the Trump administration has issued a waiver for Turkey to buy oil from Iran.

U.S. officials have had enough of Erdoğan’s antics and authoritarianism. The Pentagon just cancelled Turkey’s participation in the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter Program. The Pentagon will not allow its state of-the-art stealth technology to fall into the hands of Russian military attachés working in Turkey alongside the S-400s.

Beyond suspending the transfer of F-35 fighter jets, the United States should consider other aspects of security cooperation. Incirlik Air Force in southern Turkey is the symbolic and logistical hub of U.S. military operations in Turkey. Since 1991, it has been critical for supplying military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Incirlik comes with a political cost. Turkey uses Incirlik to coerce concessions. It regularly threatens to cancel the six-month lease agreement, while reserving the right to expel U.S. forces with 72-hours notice. Turkey denied U.S. warplanes access to Incirlik for nearly a year when Incirlik was badly needed as a staging ground for fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Incirlik is not indispensable. Alternative leasing arrangements are available in Jordan, Cyprus and Romania.

The Pentagon operates an International Military Education and Training (IMET) Program for Turkish officers at a cost of up to $5 million each year. IMET for Turkey’s Islamist military should be cancelled. 

When Erdoğan’s security detail beat peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in Washington’s Sheridan Circle, Congress enacted legislation to deny arms sales to Erdoğan’s security officers. The United States should also request Interpol red bulletins for 19 people who were indicted by a Washington Grand Jury for their role in the incident.

Multilateral measures are also possible. The United States should encourage NATO allies, France and Italy, to suspend the transfer of a long-range air defence system being developed by a Franco-Italian consortium, Eurosam. Moreover, European countries should be outraged that Erdoğan is regulating the flow of refugees to extort money from the European Union.

Radically re-thinking relations with Turkey could also encompass economic cooperation. The Turkish lira collapsed last summer. Last month, the lira dropped another 5 percent against the dollar on news that the Turkish Central Bank had used a third of its foreign currency reserves to prop up the lira during the first three weeks of March alone. Turkey’s official unemployment rate is 13 percent, the highest it has been in a decade. Inflation hovers at about 20 percent. The purchasing power of consumers has dropped dramatically. Turkish businesses that owe debts denominated in foreign currencies are especially hard-hit. 

Erdoğan blames the United States and Jewish bankers for Turkey’s economic collapse. However, he has no one to blame but himself and his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who serves as finance minister.

The United States has a 17.46-voting share in the International Monetary Fund (IMF). When Turkey applies for assistance to prop up the plunging value of the lira, the United States should condition assistance on human rights and political criteria, including respect for freedom of speech and the release of Kurdish parliamentarians wrongly accused of terrorism.

Until U.S. citizens and consular staff are released from detention in Turkey, Washington should also work with other countries to limit financing for Turkey from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Travel to the United States by Turkish officials involved in their detention should be barred.

The United States imposed extraordinary steel tariffs on Turkey in response to its arrest of American pastor, Andrew Brunson. Brunson was released, but the tariffs should remain until other Americans are also freed.   

The Trump administration recently found that Turkey is no longer a developing country, revoking preferential trade treatment for Turkish goods and services. The finding has a big impact on Turkish textiles exported to the United States. Though Erdoğan strongly objected, Washington must not reinstate Turkey’s designation as a developing country.  

In addition to Russia, Turkey has also been influencing America’s political system by paying huge sums to lobbyists and think tanks. The Justice Department should more stringently enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), requiring disclosure of consultants writing editorials for Erdoğan and lobbying on behalf of Turkey. Sums given to think tanks such as the Atlantic Council should be revealed.

Turkey learned impunity by getting away with genocide. The United States must stop turning a blind eye to what happened during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. President Donald Trump should recognise the Armenian genocide on the day it is remembered - April 24. Congress should pass a companion resolution affirming the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians and reminding Turkey of its obligations as the successor state to compensate descendants of the victims.

The United States should also recognise the Pontic Greek genocide, the systematic killing of Christians, on its upcoming centenary – May 19, 2019.

Local elections on March 31 were a sham. Fifty-three people with the pro-Kurdish party were arrested on election eve. Opposition parties were harassed and received almost no coverage in government-controlled media.

Even with Erdoğan’s party stuffing ballots, it lost control of Turkey’s major cities.

Turkey has gone rogue. Its human rights situation is appalling. Its strategic orientation and foreign policy are alarming. Turkey’s dealings with Russia, cooperation with Iran, solidarity with Venezuela, readiness to improve relations with China, and threats against U.S. allies in Syria have rattled the U.S. foreign policy and defence establishment. Turkey’s support for Islamism and close cooperation with Iran are further causes for concern. 

More than a few people are claiming that Turkey is an uncertain ally. Now the general consensus is that Turkey is a strategic adversary and potentially dangerous. It deserves a sharp rebuke for thumbing its nose at NATO and the United States, by taking delivery of the S-400s.  

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