by Giorgio Cafiero and Theodore Karasik
In recent months and years, the Turkey-U.S. alliance has undergone considerable stress. A host of issues have fueled this friction, including Washington’s support for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-linked forces in Syria, open questions about the U.S. government’s alleged role in the failed coup plot of 2016, the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, and the Trump administration’s position on the occupied Golan Heights and Jerusalem.
The most recent strain in the alliance is an ongoing standoff over the S-400 missile and F-35s jet deals. With its announced suspension of the sale of F-35s to Turkey, the U.S. is trying to force Ankara into choosing between acquiring the Russian S-400 missile defense system or receiving the parts and program materials necessary for the American fighter jet program. Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement of the suspended sale marked the first concrete U.S. step to thwart the transfer of the jets to a fellow NATO member.
Turkey wants both systems. But Washington is worried that Moscow will be able to acquire secretive information about the F-35s, which would compromise the fighter jet’s ability to operate in certain air spaces around the world. Turkey’s assurances that these concerns are misplaced have done nothing to convince Washington. Meanwhile, Turkey has refused to be enticed away from the S-400 by a U.S. counteroffer due to issues pertaining to technology transfers, the price tag, and uncertainty regarding the delivery time, which could take years.
Due to American pressure, the Russian system will possibly be delivered and left unpacked. In addition, the S-400 system would need to be compatible with the Link 16 C4ISR system to integrate appropriately with the F-35 Identification Friend Foe (IFF) and other capabilities. Thus, the S-400 will not be able to integrate into Western advanced aviation systems.
The Turkish leadership believes that the country is facing grave threats from Syria and Iraq, along with an unresolved conflict with the PKK within Turkey’s own borders. It feels that it can’t wait for a better deal with the United States for the Patriot missile system.
Turkey will not likely cease being a member of NATO as a result of this standoff. After all, there is no mechanism for kicking any member out of NATO. Also, during past political crises in Turkey-U.S. relations, such as last year’s Andrew Brunson saga, relations between the two NATO members’ militaries remained strong.
That said, the current standoff may have serious ramifications. Turkey exiting the supply chain of the F-35 fighter jets would lead to delays given that Turkish defense firms produce parts that are necessary for the jets’ fuselage. That would place fresh stress on an already complicated supply chain. Thousands of service providers in the jet production line will be affected by a slow-down.
Looking ahead, this impasse has much potential to severely escalate tension in the Turkey-U.S. alliance with Ankara likely to move closer to Moscow on Syria and energy cooperation as pressure from Washington mounts on the S-400 issue. But the real test will be whether other advanced Russian equipment ends up in Turkey’s arsenal. At that juncture, NATO members will face unprecedented challenges, as the alliance’s secretary general recently warned.
The relationship between Turkey and Russia, which began warming up significantly following the failed coup plot of 2016, has been a source of concern for Washington. Turkey, nonetheless, is communicating to the U.S. that it is an independent and influential country that will pursue deeper relations with other powers to suit Turkish interests. If the U.S. can’t persuade Turkey to give up on its desire to have it both ways, Russia will have proven its ability to drive further wedges between Washington and its traditional allies in the Middle East, and the world will have taken one more step toward greater multipolarity.
Theodore Karasik (@Tkarasik) is the senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.