What’s at stake in latest Turkey demand for F-16s? – analysis

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© (photo credit: REUTERS)
A US Air Force F-16 jet fighter takes off from an airbase during CRUZEX multinational air exercise in Natal

Turkey has sent its Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to the US to press for a deal on F-16s. The diplomat met with his US counterpart Antony Blinken as part of a US-Turkey “Strategic Mechanism” meeting. They discussed NATO, Ukraine and Syria.

Meanwhile in Congress, several key US lawmakers have expressed objections to the push to sell Ankara more weapons. America also wants to sell F-35s to Greece, which could be a major game-changer in the Eastern Mediterranean and increase the important role of Athens in the region.  

The problem in Washington is that Ankara has been an unreliable partner, and has often worked against US interests and the interests of Western democracies in general. Turkey has been working to prevent Sweden and Finland, two democracies, from joining NATO.

As part of Ankara’s blackmail campaign, it has demanded Sweden deport and extradite dozens of dissidents and critics of Turkey. These people tend to be refugees and asylum seekers who have critiqued Turkey’s ruling party. In Turkey opposition members have been jailed for just expressing criticism of the ruling party – and most independent media has been shut down or turned into pro-government media.  

The sale of F-16s is now becoming another way that Ankara is making demands for more weapons and seeking to trade this sale for dropping its opposition to letting Finland and Sweden join NATO. NATO’s founders likely never anticipated a situation in which an alliance member would become a dictatorship and then prevent democracies from joining, or where a member of NATO would be openly opposed to things like freedom of speech, or opposed to democratic values and seek to trade membership for weapons. This puts the US in a bind. 

THE CURRENT difficulty for the US is that while some members of Congress have grown tired of Ankara’s threats, there are many officials in various parts of the government who see it as a necessary evil, a misbehaving ally that is needed because of shifting power in the world.

In this policy analysis, Turkey is viewed as important because of its large economy, and its “geopolitical” position, because it is physically situated between Europe, Iran and Russia. If Turkey were located where Brazil is, this wouldn’t be an issue; it could continue being anti-democratic and threatening the West, but it wouldn’t be “strategically” located near Iran and Russia.

The other issue that pro-Ankara commentators raise is that they believe the US has alienated Turkey by backing Kurdish forces in Syria. America works with the Syrian Democratic Forces to fight ISIS in Syria. These Kurdish allies and the numerous Arabs, Christians and other groups who work with the SDF, have been key to stability in eastern Syria.

By contrast, Ankara has claimed to back other former Syrian rebel groups who it co-opted and which it has used to fight Kurds since 2016. Turkey’s goal was to redirect the Syrian rebellion, enable the capture of Aleppo by Assad, and shift the Syrian rebels to fight Kurds.

Ankara’s overall goal in Syria is to neutralize the SDF and SNA (the former rebels) and then sign a deal with Damascus. Turkey has held recent meetings in Russia with Damascus regime members. Iran backs a Damascus-Ankara deal. Together, Iran, Turkey and Russia have worked to weaken the US role in Syria. For some US commentators who are pro-Turkey, Washington can upend this situation by reducing ties with the SDF, enabling ethnic cleansing of Kurdish regions and then trying to work with Turkey against Iran.  

Another issue at stake is Turkey’s problematic relationship with Russia. It has hedged in how it deals with Ukraine. While it provided Ukraine with Bayraktar drones before the war, Turkey has not provided Ukraine any munitions or weapons since the Russian invasion, even as NATO and European countries have rushed to arm Kyiv.

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An F-16 fighter jet. (credit: LOCKHEED MARTIN)

An F-16 fighter jet. (credit: LOCKHEED MARTIN)

Instead, Ankara has worked with Russia, enabling Moscow to get around sanctions, reportedly hosting Russian oligarchs, and working with Russia on energy deals. This is how Ankara also worked with Tehran during the period when Iran was under sanctions. Thus, Turkey plays both sides – it is a key part of the Ukraine grain deal, but it also works with Russia. Turkey wants F-16s, but it also has acquired Russia’s S-400 system.  

Ankara attempting to reconcile with Israel

LASTLY, ANKARA has attempted to reconcile with Israel in order to obtain better deals in Washington. During the Trump era Turkey had close friends in the US administration and exploited this relationship to try to get America to leave Syria and also to threaten Israel. During the lead-up to the embassy move and the Abraham Accords, Turkey was one of the leading countries against both of them.

Now Ankara has shifted its rhetoric. Instead of openly hosting Hamas leaders and trying to isolate Israel diplomatically and comparing it to Nazi Germany, as Turkey’s leader did at the UN in 2019, now Ankara has been courting Israel. This policy increased over the last year when newly reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was out of office.

It’s clear that Turkey has tried to work with pro-Israel voices in the US to try to wring concessions from it. For many years authoritarian regimes, including Turkey, have believed that they can get favors in Washington by working with pro-Israel groups and voices and pretending they will be working with Israel if only pro-Israel voices go to bat for them on the hill.

Two decades ago, for instance, Ankara sought to influence some groups to deny the Armenian genocide in exchange for Ankara working more closely with Jerusalem. Two decades later, the old pattern is back: trying to trade ties with Israel for other concessions. 

As part of this drive, Turkey sells itself as being a major economic power situated to help Israel export energy and cut trade deals. While Washington also wants to sell Greece F-35s and work with Athens, some of the old talking points in policymaking portray Greece as less important than Turkey. Unlike Ankara, Greece is a democracy that is supportive of NATO and has positive relations with many countries and a consistent policy. Ankara’s overall method of doing policy is to use threats to achieve goals and then work with adversaries of the US.

It’s unclear if Ankara can cut more deals in Washington and receive its F-16s. In the past, it has used fighter jets primarily to target Kurds and minorities in Syria and Iraq, bombing areas that are vulnerable and poor, such as where Yazidis live and where Christian and Kurdish minorities live. Some key US lawmakers may be all that stands in the way of Ankara getting more warplanes which it may then use against US anti-ISIS partners in Syria.

It’s also unclear how long the current Turkey-Israel reconciliation will last. Ankara is currently encouraging its state media to bash Sweden, but it may be only a matter of time before its backing for Hamas and anti-Israel screeds begin again. What’s at stake in DC as Ankara seeks more warplanes is whether the US believes appeasing it will keep it from another invasion in Syria and whether this kind of policy has achieved any goals over the last decade. Considering Turkey’s track record, there’s little evidence that much has changed. 

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