I have stopped counting how many times we have come across this sentence in the last couple of years: Tensions between the United States (or the European Union) and Turkey have reached a new peak.
Last week, we were discussing whether the EU would impose sanctions on Turkey. In the end, bloc leaders, who gathered on Dec. 10-11 in Brussels, deferred their decisions until March, disappointing hardliners France, Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, states that had been pushing for harsh actions against Turkey over the East Mediterranean gas dispute.
The other camp within the divided bloc, which includes Germany, realizes the importance of Turkey to both the continent and NATO. Those countries are trying to reenergize relations for the future of the bloc, modernizing the EU-Turkey customs union, enhancing trade and economic ties with Ankara and cooperating on migration and other matters of common interest. Thus far, they have been successful in stopping the adventurer European leaders who cannot foresee the long-term impacts of isolation, or even more, losing Turkey.
On the other hand, however, they ironically have shown that they are unable to make final decisions on their own as it is said that they will wait to consult with the upcoming Joe Biden administration.
The result has probably broken the heart of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has repeatedly called for an EU that is more independent of the U.S. and enjoyed the term of President Donald Trump, who preferred to put some distance between America and Brussels over the last four years.
The rest of the important European leaders look like they can’t wait for the new U.S. president, who is expected to be more influential over EU affairs, as it was before Trump. In short, they want to do what the U.S. wants them to do.
That said, this week’s main topic is the U.S.’ decision to impose sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
The CAATSA was passed in the U.S. Senate in July 2017 and signed into law by Trump that August. The main goal of the bill is to counter Russia’s influence in Europe and Eurasia as well as Iran’s destabilizing activities.
And yet, the bill has almost always made headlines with Turkey. CAATSA became a U.S. federal law to impose sanctions on countries and companies purchasing military equipment from Russia, and so once Ankara started negotiations with Moscow over the purchase of S-400 long-range air defense systems, it started to be discussed in Washington.
The expected sanctions imposed on Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) and its chief Ismail Demir, as well as several other senior defense officials, were confirmed on the U.S. Treasury website late Monday after the Senate gave its approval last week.
“Despite our warnings, Turkey moved ahead with its purchase and testing of the S-400 system from Russia,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on the same day adding: “Today’s sanctions on Turkey’s SSB demonstrates the U.S. will fully implement CAATSA. We will not tolerate significant transactions with Russia’s defense sector.”
While signing the bill into law in 2017, Trump noted that the legislation was “seriously flawed, particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate … By limiting the executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people and will drive China, Russia and North Korea much closer together.”
This is a topic for another discussion, and we will see whether Trump was right or wrong in the future, but it is very likely that the sanctions, designed to drive a wedge between Turkey and Russia, will backfire.
Actually, Washington’s unjust threats against Ankara, its recklessness over Turkey’s national security concerns and its rejection of collaboration with its NATO ally pushed the Turkish government to buy the S-400 defense systems in the first place. Instead of correcting a mistake, today the U.S. is insisting on doing the same thing and expecting different results.
It is known that Ankara has been working on producing its own high-tech military systems for a long while. To recall, in 2013, the domestic development and production of long-range air and missile defense systems became a priority for the country, and the Turkish Ministry of Defense announced a tender for the Turkish Long Range Air and Missile Defense Systems (T-LORAMIDS) program.
Turkey has had three major conditions: coproduction, technology transfer and partial on-time delivery. American defense companies Raytheon and Lockheed Martin did not include technology transfers or coproductions in their offers and also asked for at least a four times larger payment than what Turkish financial conditions had stated. In December 2017, Turkey signed a contract with Russia’s Rosoboronexport for its S-400 systems.
Ever since then, Washington has been pressuring and threatening Turkey with sanctions and political and economic consequences. The U.S. even removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, although it has fulfilled all its responsibilities in the project.
NATO, the intergovernmental military alliance of which both the U.S. and Turkey are members, has repeatedly said that Ankara’s procurement of the S-400 system is a “national decision.”
The threats, however, have never ended. Ankara has repeatedly stressed it was Washington’s refusal to sell its Patriots that led it to seek out other sellers, adding that Russia offered it a better deal, including technology transfers. Turkey offered to set up a commission to clarify any technical issues, but the U.S. has not responded to this proposal.
Even further, Ankara stated many times that it would buy Patriots from the U.S. as well; however, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin were not open to technology transfers or cooperation, which has been a priority for Turkey since 2013.
It should be noted here that the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands decided to pull the Patriot missiles stationed on the Turkey-Syria border in August 2015, claiming that “the nature of the threat to Turkey from Syria had changed from the conflict in Syria, one stemming mainly from the Bashar Assad regime to that posed by radical elements.”
The Patriots were deployed in early 2013 after Turkey asked its NATO allies for support to protect its soil, which is also NATO territory, amid the escalating civil war in Syria.
More interestingly, the decision came less than a month after Turkey opened its air bases to U.S. fighter jets that were launching airstrikes against the Daesh terrorist group in Syria.
Ankara cooperated with the Obama administration in the fight against Daesh, although the U.S. allied with the outlawed PKK’s YPG Syria branch on the ground.
Turkey’s national security was under threat from increasing terror activities and civil war in its neighboring country, and yet it was totally left alone and vulnerable by its NATO allies.
In early October 2015, when the Patriots were about to be pulled out, Russian warplanes violated Turkish airspace twice during bombing campaigns in Syria. That same month, an identified MiG-29 and Syria-based missile systems harassed Turkey’s warplanes while on patrol along the border.
Then on Nov. 24, 2015, a Turkish jet shot down a Russian fighter that had violated Turkey’s airspace a few times. Nevertheless, all Patriots across the Syrian border in Turkey were withdrawn in December 2015.
Unsurprisingly, only the Spanish Patriot systems, which are stationed in Adana near the Incirlik base to protect the U.S. and allied forces that carry out airstrikes in Syria, were left on Turkish soil.
2015 jet crisis
The downing of a Russian jet in November 2015 on the Turkish-Syrian border sparked an unprecedented diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Moscow and showed the degree of threat Turkey faced due to the Syrian civil war.
After the coup attempt by the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) on July 15, 2016, a Turkish pilot who played a role in the downing of the Russian jet was detained. Today, many in Turkey believe that the downing of the fighter was to start a huge crisis, perhaps even a war, between Turkey and Russia.
Starting from June 27, 2016, Turkey and Russia worked to improve their relations, culminating in their cooperation in Syria to stop the violence there.
We can once again say that it was not Turkey that arbitrarily decided to come close to Russia, it was its NATO allies that pushed Ankara to do so. Turkey had to protect itself and once its allies said they were out, it was normal for Ankara to evaluate alternatives.
Meanwhile, over the last decade, Turkey has spent billions of dollars developing its defense sector to grow its self-sufficiency in military matters in the face of its weapon-supplying allies’ unfriendly policies.
Once reliant on weapons sold by its NATO partners, especially the U.S., Turkey understood after the Syrian civil war it would not be safe and secure without a deterrent military force and that it cannot maintain its independence without a defense industry.
It is almost a tradition that Turkey’s NATO allies threaten it with sanctions the prohibition of arms sales when they want Ankara to do something that contradicts its interests. What doesn’t kill you, however, only makes you stronger. Thanks to increasing investments in the last years, Turkey’s local defense industry is now meeting 70% of the country’s military requirements, up from 20% 15 years ago.
Turkey is not only taking steps to produce for its own military needs but is also boosting sales to other countries. According to reports, Turkey in 2019 ranked 14th among the world’s top arms exporters. Turkey’s defense revenue was around $1 billion in 2002; today it is worth about $11 billion per year.
While the country’s arms exports came to only $248 million in 2002, it was worth over $3 billion dollars in 2019. The number of Turkish defense companies rose from 56 to approximately 1,500 between 2002 and 2019. There are at least 75,000 employees now working in the country’s defense industry.
Turkey has increased its defense projects to almost 700 today while it had only 66 in 2002. Around 350 new projects have been launched since 2015. The budget for defense projects in Turkey was about $5.5 billion in 2002, while today, this has risen to $60 billion. If ongoing tender processes are included, the country’s defense project budget has now surpassed $75 billion.
Of course, there is a long way to go and emerging threats of today’s world make it mandatory to develop next-generation military solutions.
Nonetheless, it looks like Ankara has already prepared itself for the long run, and probably one day, it will produce its own long-range air defense system, no matter how much the U.S., or others, try to prevent it.
As I said, threatening Turkey with sanctions is nothing new for Washington. The U.S. imposed an arms embargo on Ankara in the 1970s after Turkey’s intervention in Cyprus due to violence by paramilitary groups against Cypriot Turks following a Greek Cypriot coup on the island. After the embargo, the Turkish Armed Forces Strengthening Foundation (TSKGV), which aimed to reduce the defense industry’s dependence on imports, made investments in Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), ASELSAN, IŞBIR, Aspilsan, Havelsan, Roketsan and more. So, what doesn’t kill Turkey has made it stronger in the past and it will be the same in the future.
During my discussions with several Russian military experts and diplomatic sources, they usually admit that it was a huge mistake for Moscow to corner Ankara at the end of the 1940s as that pressure made it become a member of NATO.
“If we didn’t threaten Turkey as much as we did, they might not have joined the trans-Atlantic alliance,” they confess. How ironic that things are the other way around today. I am just saying that we might hear such words from NATO one day as some members, especially the U.S., are making the same mistake as the Soviets.