DUBAI — Turkey has been part of the NATO alliance since 1952 and, with geopolitical dynamics shifting, it has been in the spotlight more than ever in recent years.
Moscow’s courting of Ankara after its military intervention in Syria created sharp divergences with Turkey’s partners in the West, particularly the United States.
Turkey’s insistence on seeing through the purchase of the Russia-made S-400 missile defence system has strained these ties, bringing it to a strategic crossroads that could uproot its NATO role and future.
As air and missile capabilities proliferated in the Middle East, Turkey’s capabilities lagged. To meet its own requirements, Turkey selected China’s FD-2000 missile defence system in 2015 before US pressure forced Ankara to restart the tender process, resulting in the selection of Russia’s S-400.
Turkish officials justified their decision, they said, because Russian and Chinese suppliers offer comparable systems at lower costs and, crucially, with a technology transfer that the United States was unwilling to match.
Washington has stated concern that Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 would compromise the security of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, among other systems, by potentially making it possible for Russia to work out how to spot and effectively track the fifth-generation stealth multirole fighter.
The F-35 brings together nine countries into a US-led production programme in which 6-7% of the parts were to be produced by Turkey. The Turkish Air Force was to purchase as many as 120 of the aircraft, making it one of the largest buyers.
While the F-35 is not part of a NATO programme, the future force transformation it enables would underpin NATO air power and make the Turkish Air Force one of the world’s most modern. By halting delivery of parts for the F-35 to Turkey, Washington has raised the stakes in this standoff.
Turkish pilots have been training for about a year on F-35s at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and two of the aircraft were to be flown to Turkey this November.
However, US Air Force General Tod Wolters, who is to take over the US European Command this year, in a US Senate Armed Services Committee meeting recently said he backed steps to block Turkish pilot training on the F-35. The man Wolters will succeed, US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, earlier called for the F-35 sale to Turkey to be cancelled if Ankara purchased the S-400.
Compounding tensions between the United States and Turkey has been the status of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). While Washington has relied on the YPG to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, Turkey views the force, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, as a terrorist organisation and an existential threat.
In 2016, Ankara launched incursions into Syria to undermine the group, a step Washington viewed as challenging the US fight against ISIS.
If sanctions against Turkey are imposed over its purchase of Russia’s S-400, US President Donald Trump will most certainly let them be because he maintains a transactional view of US ties with Turkey.
In his view, Erdogan must buy American or face the wrath of the United States. This means that a fissure inside NATO is possible, with Turkey’s role in the alliance hanging in the air.
Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
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