On Tuesday’s visit of the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to the USA, with a meeting with his counterpart Anthony Blinken, seems to be recognisable. As they did discuss a lot, among them the issue of the sale of 40 F-16Vs as well as the 79 upgrade kits of older F-16s of the Turkish Air Force, but without any development being made public.
The relevant thing we had was the statement of the US ambassador in Ankara, Jeffry Flake, who went through the formalities. How the Biden administration wants the sale, but the Congress that will approve it – or at least not reject it – is institutionally autonomous and no one can predetermine a timeline of developments.
However, it is interesting to comment on the recent presentation of the possible sale to Turkey as approximately a “package” with the sale of 30 F-35s to Greece (typically, of course, the two sales are independent). In other words, an attempt to balance, where both countries are armed by the USA – in a paternalistic role once again – but “good” Greece is rewarded with the high-tech and capable F-35, while “mischievous” Turkey, after being punished in “corner,” is getting a refresh to its F-16 fleet. Is the above American approach simplistic? It is and looks international. And it disappoints many, who were hoping – badly as we will explain below – for a more radical attitude towards Turkey. But this is not going to happen for many reasons.
First historians. As the US has not actually practiced within NATO and its allies, an aggressive policy, especially in matters of disarmament. Behind the scenes a lot is happening, but the fact that in 2019 Turkey was expelled from the F-35 co-production and supply program, having already paid close to 1.5 billion dollars, involving its defense industries in the production of components was a huge event. Both diplomatically and defensively. Just for the last one, let’s say that even this year – probably the last year – the Turkish defense industry will produce components for the F-35 production line. Precisely because its elimination from the program could not be implemented overnight, as it would upset the delivery schedule of the new aircraft.
Would we like more of this to happen? Obviously. Greece wants Turkey to remain in intra-NATO isolation, to have a permanent, formal or informal, arms embargo, not to get F-16s, or engines for tanks, for new warships and aircraft, not to be provided with new ammunition, etc. ok But how long is this possible to continue and even for a long time? We do not predict, but we are already enjoying the window of time that has been given to us. As several of Turkey’s armament programs have gone back in time and Ankara has been forced to make new investments, trying to produce local weapons systems.
Let’s remember the following so we don’t get disappointed: A few years ago, around 2017, it was Turkey that was waiting to receive up to 100 F-35s and it was Greece that was living in abject poverty and saw no light to upgrade its Air Force. This has changed today, there is a benefit for the Greek armaments programs, therefore also for the negotiating and deterrent power of Greece. As long as that lasts, of course.
Beyond the historical reason for American reluctance to punish Turkey with armaments for a long time, there is also the permanent issue of geopolitical balance. It is known, we repeat it. “Gift” Turkey to Russia or China, Washington will not do it. He will oppose it, he will pressure, he will support the Turkish opposition, he will perhaps practice “gray” diplomacy and intervention, but he will not give up the effort. Be careful here, it is not a given that the US is capable of hindering Turkey in its extroversion and in the effort for geopolitical autonomy. But as long as this Turkish ambition can be delayed, appeased, skewed, dampened, downgraded, the US will do so, either by brandishing a whip or serving up a carrot.
Both because they know that the Turkish intention for a “special role” in Central Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean is an indirect strengthening of Russia and undermining NATO, and because they see that in a redefinition of geopolitical balances, with new great powers claiming a role (mainly China and India, but also a coalition of Arab states), Turkey as a new pole of power creates even stronger disintegration dynamics. And the US, if nothing else, hates the turmoil that challenges its international primacy.
On a more cynical note, the US, like many other countries in the West, recognizes Turkey’s value. As a large country, with high production and exports, with a young population that wants to consume, with many universities and increasing attendance at them, thus with a growing specialized workforce with skills, with local influence and intervention. With special relations with Russia that the West may be able to exploit, with a geographical position that offers control over traditional flows of trade and raw materials (eg natural gas).
In other words, they see beyond the Erdoğan “crowns” and the crowds of headscarf-wearing and enthusiastic supporters who welcome him at his pre-election rallies. They see beyond the spread of radical Islamism in Turkey, they see beyond the permanent turmoil in the east with the Kurds, they see beyond Ankara’s involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean, with threats to Greece, curtseys with Libya and discomfort with Egypt. And what they see is a country that must remain a close associate and partner, with recognition of its special characteristics and aspirations. Something like an “Islamic Israel”, with its own non-negotiable agenda but also friendship with Washington. We remind here that such an ambition once existed for Pakistan and failed, but also for Egypt, which is currently succeeding, but with fragile balances.
The fourth element that hinders the American effort to completely isolate Turkey: The traditional view of the most conservative American circles that – to some extent – see Ankara with the well-known filter of Orientalism. That is to say that it is a picturesque-exotic country, a bit unruly, a bit Islamic, a bit bigoted and assertive but in the end it will want to remain an “ally”. In this theory, “American exceptionalism” is also found, i.e. the view that the USA itself is a model state, a beacon of democracy and power, with an almost divine mandate to guide the world. This is how the “excellent Americans” treat many countries around them, like Turkey, as natives awaiting conversion: that with a little more effort, in a few more decades, they too will come under the American “patronage”, they will join its imaginary “Western Republic”. And they will be transformed on the basis of a common political and partly cultural pattern, preserving some of their local characteristics as folklore…
In addition to the above in the long term, we must recognize that Turkey, or at least American circles, also propose a series of benefits for now, if Ankara gets the F-16s it is asking for. Here we find the argument of the Biden administration, how Turkey can be convinced to approve the entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO, with partial consideration for the sale of fighters. In the short-term American analysis this is much more important, to complete the expansion of NATO with two more countries on the border with Russia, so “yes”, it is worth sacrificing some prestige to appease Turkey to its demands. After all, getting 40 more fighters – always for the American perception – is not something that overturns the balance in the Aegean, since “we offer Greece 30 F-35s, so we more than cover the Turkish reinforcement”. Small bazaars one might say, but they are never absent, even from the most serious international negotiation tables.
Another argument in favor of Turkey: That it contributes to the Ukrainian issue in its own way, so it should be rewarded. As he mediates between Ukraine and Russia, maintains the flow of grain from Ukrainian ports to avoid a food crisis in Africa and Asia, supplies arms to Kyiv and condemns – even on paper – Russian aggression. So for now always, a “bonus” of a few fighters is nothing remarkable.
The current obstacles to Turkey finally getting the F-16s
So does Turkey have room and chances to get F-16s, get even more, an American “amnesty” for its misdeeds, and re-establish itself in the western space as it wishes, as a new strong player? It has but with several current obstacles. We list them briefly:
1. The reaction of powerful circles of American politics and bureaucracy
First the “anti-Turkish” group in Congress, led by Senator Bob Menendez and many others, Democrats and Republicans, who are motivated not so much by “love for Greece” (this is the case for some), but mainly by concern for the Turkish promiscuity and aggression all around her and of course for her Russian transaction. In the same embankment we find organizations of the American Jewish lobby, which predict the “Iranization of Turkey” and of course will stand against it, having plenty of political capital. Finally, any influence of the Greek-American community, which in some states and counties of the USA can influence marginal election results, but also provide significant financial support to election campaigns. In other words, groups that can institutionally block any approval of the sale of arms to Turkey for a significant period of time.
2. The apparent reluctance of the Biden administration to create a rift in the Democratic party today, for the sake of Turkey
Menendez is “shouting” that he will not approve an F-16 sale, as are other Democrats such as Frank Pallone, Nicole Maliotakis, Brad Sherman, Grace Meng and so many others we have listed. Biden seems to want his re-election – something difficult due to his age – but in any case the confrontation of a Democratic government with Democratic senators and congressmen is superfluous at this time. Underground, of course, we will see if the latter can be convinced, but even that takes time.
3. The geostrategic view – quite modern – that sees Turkey as a “lost cause” now
It is expressed both by conservative and liberal circles in the USA, by the respective think-tanks, which record that “we can no longer trust Turkey” and that “Ankara is not a reliable ally”. Positions that Turkey naively (or cunningly?) reinforces, now blackmailing Sweden and Finland to join NATO, to offer it the “heads” of Gulenists and Kurds.
4. The fear that even if Turkey calms down for now, even if Erdogan “disappears”, even if he returns to the Western embrace, will retain as a country all the characteristics of geopolitical radicalism
Islamism, young dynamic population, search for identity, strong national myths (panturanism), state-religion identification, search for internal and external enemies for self-determination. Also proximity to wealth-producing sources that cultivate the ambition to intervene, dreams of returning to former “splendour” i.e. in a neo-Ottoman era, language specificity, historical revisionism, as well as discomfort towards the “aggressive West”.
5. The finding that Turkey, especially in its armaments programs, is moving towards independence from the West – but also the East
So the transfer of know-how there, the provision of armaments as intermediate solutions, all ultimately strengthen the Turkish defense industry to project itself as an international competitor of Western arms. And with access to developing markets, where the West has difficulty entering due to costs and bureaucracy.
6. Turkey’s constant demand for the participation of its defense industry
Here we also had the “clarification” of the sanctions of the US CATSAA law, which are imposed on “persons or entities”. That is, by pointing out that the American sanctions for the purchase of the S-400 have been imposed on the Turkish defense industry, so as long as these sanctions are maintained, it will not be possible, for example, Turkish Aerospace to assemble the new Turkish F-16s. Will the Turks accept something like this? Difficult.
7. It is equally difficult for Turkey to accept some condition on the sale of F-16s
e.g. that these cannot be used for violations of Greek airspace. It does not matter if such a term can be practically applied, and its mere existence will be a “red flag” for Ankara and prohibitive for its prestige.
8. The upcoming elections in Turkey
A promise to sell F-16s from the US may be what Erdogan wants to present in his election campaign, but something more substantial, such as a clear timetable, is unlikely to be offered by Washington. As this will be interference in the electoral process, it will irritate the Turkish opposition and perhaps produce loud reactions.
The American-Turkish relationship
We come to the following: The American-Turkish relationship has been simmering for several years, now we see a willingness to re-approach from Washington, however quite opportunistic, due to NATO and Ukrainian enlargement. Turkey is also asking to be restored to the “West” but with conditions. But between them there are many, big and small. Which in the special issue of the sale of F-16 signal quite a delay yet. It can be months, e.g. after the Turkish elections and the clearing of the scene there, it may be quite a bit longer, if Menendez and his allies in Congress manage to exhaust the institutional reprieve offered by the legislation.
Turkey doesn’t even want to participate in the Western game, even as a “naughty”, which is what it did in the 80s and 90s. Its change is clear and structural, with a population whose new generations are nurtured with a different “set” of values and national myths than the post-war ones. Where pride in Kemalist secularism and modernism has been replaced by the suggestion of Islamic modernism and a pride of “coming out” in the periphery. Where the demand for democracy has been somewhat undercut by a demand for prosperity. Where the domestic political scene where the domestic left, the trade unionism and the social movements were persecuted, is now persecuting the Gülenists, the “pacifists”, the “traitors of the Red Apple”. Where the headscarf is worn en masse as domestic enfranchisement, co-existing with “westernizers”, something the Kemalist tradition had invested decades in silencing. A country that doesn’t even want to be called “Turkey” but now Turkiye, even asking for justification from the spelling.
The new Turkiye therefore moves autonomously from what Greece – or the USA – wants for her, so as a secondary issue she also demands the gifts of her coming of age (living a second youth). Whether these are called F-16, or tolerance, or scissors to cut the rest of her shackles.