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Tough Sanctions May Drive Turkey Into Russia’s Arms

Posted by Paul McLeary on

In photos released by the Turkish government, a Russian S-400 is delivered to Turkey.

WASHINGTON: A sanctions package punishing Turkey for its push into Syria to attack US Kurdish allies could have a huge impact on the Turkish military and defense industry, possibly pushing Ankara further into Moscow and Beijing’s orbit. 

“I cannot think of a contemporary example of where the US has chosen to exercise these kind of sanctions on an ally,” said Melissa Dalton, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The move could “eventually push Turkey more fully into Russia’s orbit, and have significant impacts on other NATO partners” who buy and sell arms with Turkey, and participate in multinational operations under the NATO banner.

We likely won’t know for weeks if the wide-ranging sanctions package proposed by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Chris Van Hollen will actually pass the Senate and survive a presidential veto, but the message is clear. Congress is willing to inflict economic pain on a longtime, if increasingly wayward, NATO ally.  

The bill would slap sanctions on any US or foreign person or company who does any business or provide any material support to the Turkish military, along with sanctioning any person or business who helps maintain or support Turkey’s domestic energy programs that supply Turkey’s armed forces.

While Russia and China would suffer some form of sanctions for selling arms to Turkey, Dalton thinks they would be willing to take the hit: “They would be willing to bear that cost because of the geopolitical gain to drive that wedge between Turkey and the US, and Turkey and NATO.”

The sponsoring senators have vowed to push on. “These sanctions will have immediate, far-reaching consequences for Erdogan and his military,” Van Hollen said in a statement yesterday. 

Anticipating US sanctions — which Washington has threatened to impose for more than a year after the Turkish purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system — reports emerged this summer the Turkish military has been stockpiling US-made weapons, especially spare parts for its F-16 jets.

Ankara has already felt the sting of its S-400 decision, having been removed from the F-35 program earlier upon delivery of the first anti-aircraft system.

In the face of fierce bipartisan blowback on the Hill and foreign capitals over his pullback of US troops from northern Syria and seeming acquiescence to the Turkish assault, President Trump promised to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it did anything “off limits” in Syria, but he has failed to explain what that might mean. The Turks certainly don’t seem to have paid Trump’s warning much heed, sending heavily armed troops into Syria and bombing the region.

In order for a sanctions bill to reach the president’s desk, the bill first must be taken up by two staunch Trump allies, who have blocked bills the White House did not like in the past. At the moment, it’s unclear where those two lawmakers, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, stand on the sanctions.

According to the Senate bill, the sanctions would go into effect unless the Trump administration notified Congress every 90 days that Turkey is not operating unilaterally in the Kurdish pocket east of the Euphrates and west of the Iraqi border, and has withdrawn its troops along with Turkish supported rebels.

The last time the US imposed an arms embargo on Turkey was in 1975 after Turkey’s intervention in Cyprus. Ankara responded by shuttering all US access to Turkish bases for three years, something that would create a massive logistical problem for Washington. The Incirlik air base has not only become a key node for US and NATO operations in the Middle East, but also houses up to 80 B61 nuclear weapons for delivery by US aircraft.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute said that in 1975, Turkey was eager to get back in Washington’s graces as it feared Soviet influence in the region. “I don’t think this would happen this time, as Russia no longer bullies Turkey, but instead courts Turkey,” as an economic and military partner, he said. Deep sanctions could cause Turkish President Erdogan to “pivot further away from the US toward Russia,” and would encourage Turkey to look to other states, like China, with which to make common cause.  

Some NATO allies are already moving. On Wednesday, Norway suspended new applications for military product export licenses to Turkey. Norway is also reviewing all current licenses for military and multi-use military export licenses, and is “following the situation with deep concern and reiterate our call for Turkey to end its military operation and respect international law,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide said in a statement.

Over the past several years, the Erdogan regime has made a concerted effort to build up Turkey’s domestic defense industrial capacity, which has led to some very real improvements in capability, and increased exports of Turkish gear.

According to SIPRI, military spending in Turkey increased by 24 percent in 2018 to $19 billion, the sharpest increase among the world’s top 15 military spenders.

In 2018, Turkey imported about $685 million worth of defense equipment from the United States and several European NATO partners, according to figures compiled by SIPRI, with almost $300 million of that coming from the US.

Turkish defense exports have also grown in recent years, though they’re nowhere near the goal of $25 billion in exports by 2023 outlined by the government. Earlier this year, Turkish undersecretary for the defense industry Ismail Demir announced defense exports in 2018 shot up 17 percent over the previous year, hitting a record $2 billion. 

Most Turkish exports are big-ticket items like armored 4×4 vehicles sold to client states in Africa and the Middle East, with Pakistan and the UAE being some of Ankara’s biggest clients. “Defence-export contracts signed over the last 12 months, however, reflect the growing capability of the Turkish defence industry,” analysts at IISS wrote earlier this year, which include small frigates, helicopters and drones. “Despite this, significant industrial capability gaps continue in areas such as marine and aircraft propulsion and in radars,” the note said.

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