FP Guide

The United States and Turkey Peer Over the Cliff

With the cancellation of F-35 sales to Turkey, relations between Washington and Ankara have reached a new low. Here are our top reads on how things got so bad—and what comes next.

An F-35 Lightning II fighter jet lands at the Payerne Air Base in Switzerland on June 7.
An F-35 Lightning II fighter jet lands at the Payerne Air Base in Switzerland on June 7. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

On July 17, the United States announced that it would be removing Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet program after the country received its first shipment of parts for the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system. The move, which was largely expected, comes after months of bickering between the two allies over Turkey’s pursuit of the S-400. Whether the United States will follow up with any other measures—including, potentially, new rounds of sanctions—remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that relations between the two NATO partners have reached a new low.

To explain how we got here, and what comes next, we’ve gathered our top reads on the United States, Turkey, Russia, and the F-35 program.

The breakdown in U.S.-Turkish relations, recount Foreign Policy‘s Keith Johnson and Robbie Gramer, was a long time coming, born out of decades of misunderstanding.

Indeed, concurs Nick Danforth, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, from logical reactions to foreign-policy decisions on both sides. But now, “[t]he problem for Western policymakers, including those in Washington deciding how forcefully to sanction Turkey over the S-400s, is that an overly aggressive response confirms Turkey’s belief that the United States is fundamentally hostile, while a weak one confirms its belief that aggressive pushback worked.” Turkey, he concludes, “faces an even greater problem. Provocative moves might check some of the policies it finds most problematic in the short term, but … they will ultimately deepen the hostility and encirclement Ankara fears.”

Also motivating Ankara is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s drive to stay in power. In particular, Foreign Policy writers Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer report, “Erdogan has staked his political reputation on the decision [to buy Russian weapons], seeing the S-400 deal as a way to stoke anti-Western sentiment.” Ahead of local elections earlier this summer, “Erdogan saw it as a way to shore up domestic political support and stand up to U.S. President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Turkey and other parts of Europe.”

Where others might lament the loss of Turkish friendship, Steven A. Cook, a Foreign Policy columnist, says “good riddance” to the strategic alliance. “In certain offices at the State Department, Pentagon, and among a dwindling number of foreign-policy analysts who want to give Ankara the benefit of the doubt, there is much anxiety about the end of the ‘strategic relationship’ and the need to save it. But why? It should be clear by now that there is no strategic relationship.” That’s because, he explains, “Turkey and the United States have different interests and priorities … the result of a changing world in which Washington and Ankara no longer share a common threat.”

But if Turkey is drifting away from the United States, is it really drawing closer to Russia? Galip Dalay, a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford, thinks not. The two countries may be tactically aligned on some issues, including weapons sales and countering the United States, but more divides them than binds them. “Given their largely opposing interests in the Middle East”—including in Syria, energy markets, and the role of moderate Islamists, he argues—“Russian and Turkish cooperation faces real limits. Although the two countries will likely continue to be partners—and may draw closer the more the United States pushes Turkey away—there will be plenty of opportunities for the West to exploit their differences.” That’s a call echoed by Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank, writing before the showdown between the United States and Turkey really took off.

At this point, of course, the United States would have its work cut out of it. As H. Akin Unver of Kadir Has University points out, Russia has been using Turkish social media to its own advantage. “Russia does not need to launch a coordinated disinformation campaign similar to what it has done in the West,” he writes. “Domestically produced fake and accurate news that is sympathetic to Kremlin views is already rampant. Moscow is thus well positioned to deploy its information warfare to steer policy decisions in its preferred direction.”

For now at least, it appears that U.S.-Turkish relations are set to head from bad to worse. If blocking Turkish pilots from training on the F-35, as Seligman reported in June, and canceling all sales of the jet to Turkey this week weren’t enough to bend Ankara to its will, Washington may soon enact sanctions.

“Both the U.S. State and Defense departments support imposing the harshest sanctions on Turkey, which could include cutting Ankara off from the U.S. financial system,” writes Seligman, but Trump could be a “wild card.” The question, she explains, “is how sweeping the sanctions will be. Under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, the secretary of state is required to choose at least five of 12 options that vary in scope and severity. The most severe option would be cutting the Turkish government off from the U.S. financial system. Denying procurement contracts or limiting export licenses to Turkey could also have a significant impact. Alternatively, the administration could choose to impose sanctions on a more specific entity, such as the Turkish Air Force or defense procurement agency.”

All this, Seligman reports, “will also complicate matters for the United States.” After all, “[s]everal key components of the jet are manufactured by Turkish companies, and the U.S. Defense Department estimates it will take two years to find and qualify new suppliers to replace any Turkish firms that are kicked out of the program. Meanwhile, the main European hub for the F-35’s engine repair and overhaul is in Eskisehir, in northwestern Turkey.”

As for the F-35 program itself? It will probably survive. Much like China’s Belt and Road Initiative, write the professors Jonathan D. Caverley, Ethan B. Kapstein, and Srdjan Vucetic, the United States’ sale of F-35s is a “globe-spanning economic and security project … designed to advance the interests and influence of the lead state, even as it binds the smaller ones into an asymmetric interdependence.” The United States may be inconvenienced by Turkey’s departure, but Ankara will suffer far more because “its own aviation industry supplies a number of F-35 components,” they write. With the program’s cancellation, “Turkish production lines will be unable to so easily adapt, putting at risk the $12 billion in component parts business Turkey expected. That figure may be a rounding error for the trillion-dollar F-35 program, but it is equivalent to eight years’ worth of all Turkish aerospace exports.”

Whether Erdogan will continue to pay these costs is an open question.

Kathryn Salam is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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