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Understanding the feuds plaguing the US-Turkey alliance

Understanding the feuds plaguing the US-Turkey alliance

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (left) on Sep 21, 2021, on the sidelines of the 76th United Nations General Assembly in New York. (File photo: AFP/Kena Betancur, Pool)

For years, one dispute after another has strained ties between the United States and Turkey.

The two, which possess the largest armies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), affirm the need to maintain their seven-decade alliance. But they have quarrelled over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile-defence system, US support for a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey views as a mortal threat, the rule of law in Turkey and a US prosecution of one of Turkey’s biggest banks, among other things.

Now, Turkey has posed a critical test for the relationship by asking the US to sell it new F-16 warplanes after it was barred from working on the more advanced F-35s.

1. WHAT IS TURKEY REQUESTING?

Turkey sent a formal request to Washington on Sep 30 to purchase from Lockheed Martin Corporation 40 new F-16s and some 80 kits to modernise its existing fighters.

Turkey hopes to eventually develop its own jets but in the meantime is overdue to retire its F-4 jets and wants to upgrade its F-16 fleet as a stopgap measure.

The requisition came a week after the US finalised Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program as a consequence of its acquiring the S-400 missile-defence system made by Russia, NATO’s top foe.

The US worried that the S-400 could be used to collect intelligence on the stealth capabilities of the F-35, which Turkey had helped to build and wanted to purchase. Beyond that, the US is keen to prevent its allies from engaging with Russia’s defence sector.

The F-16 deal is potentially worth US$6 billion, but US approval will be difficult to win given opposition to it within Congress. If denied the F-16s, Turkey has not ruled out the possibility of seeking alternatives, including from Russia.

2. WHAT IS TURKEY'S POSITION ON THE S-400?

Turkey took delivery of the system in 2019, two years after signing an agreement to buy it after dropping talks for a comparable US system, the Patriot, because of Washington’s refusal to share technology.

The US has demanded that Turkey scrap the S-400 in return for the lifting of related US sanctions, but Turkey has so far refused.

As part of its aspirations to develop its own missile technology and enhance its status as a regional power, Turkey has been negotiating with Russia a transfer of the S-400 technology as well as a potential second purchase of missile batteries to be produced locally. 

3. HOW ARE THE US AND TURKEY DIVIDED OVER SYRIA?

The two have different positions on the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a Kurdish militia in Syria.

The YPG was a major component of the US-led effort to combat Islamic State in Syria. However, Turkey views the group, which wound up controlling about a third of Syria, as a security threat due to its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. That group, known as the PKK, seeks an autonomous region for Kurds inside Turkey and has fought Turkish forces on and off since 1984.

In 2019, Turkey hit the brakes on a planned foray in Syria against the YPG following separate ceasefire agreements with the US and Russia, which have forces there. Accusing both countries of failing to fulfil promises to force the YPG to withdraw to at least 30km from the Turkish border, Turkey in October reinforced its troops along the frontier, raising expectations for a new offensive against the militia.

4. WHAT WAS THE DISPUTE OVER THE RULE OF LAW?

In a rare, coordinated appeal, ambassadors to Turkey representing the US, Canada, New Zealand and seven European countries demanded the release of Osman Kavala, a 65-year-old Turkish businessman and philanthropist sent to jail four years earlier, when Erdogan’s allies began accusing him of conspiring to overthrow the president.

Their call was in line with similar ones from European courts that repeatedly said the cases against him are baseless.

Calling their appeal an attack on Turkish sovereignty, Erdogan ordered the expulsion of the ambassadors before backing down

5. WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH THE TURKISH BANK?

The US has brought a criminal case against Turkish state-run lender Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS.

Prosecutors accused Halkbank, as it’s known, of participating in a wide-ranging plot to violate prohibitions on Iran’s access to the US financial system. The conspiracy involved high-ranking government officials in Iran and Turkey, the US said.

Two people, including a senior Halkbank executive, were previously convicted in the case.

The late 2017 trial sparked vehement protests from Erdogan, who accused US officials of trying to harm Turkey’s national and economic interests. He labelled the prosecution nothing short of an “international coup attempt”.

An appeals court on Oct 22 ruled against a bid for immunity by Halkbank, determining that the criminal case against it should proceed.

6. WHAT ELSE HAVE THE US AND TURKEY SPARRED OVER?

Plenty.

Their alliance has been strained by the US refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan accuses of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup.

Ties were inflamed by Turkey’s detention of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, and employees of US diplomatic missions in Turkey on suspected involvement in the attempted putsch or terrorism.

Turkey is also irritated that the US backs its rivals in a natural gas dispute with Cyprus and in other regional conflicts.

7. IS THERE A PATH TO REPAIRING TIES?

Having served as a bulwark against Russia during the Cold War, Turkey believes it has valuable bargaining chips.

It still hosts American nuclear warheads at its Incirlik air base and military installations used by the US to spy on Russia.

It is also the only barrier keeping many of about 5 million refugees, most of them Syrians, from flooding into European countries with which the US has close ties.

Turkish officials say they think that US President Joe Biden’s faith in multinational institutions and transatlantic ties will help them repair damage with NATO partners and improve the likelihood of long-sought weapons deals.

Source: Bloomberg/kg

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