What do US sanctions on Turkey mean for NATO?

US sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system threatens the longstanding alliance.

With positions rapidly hardening between Washington and Ankara the potential, for a Turkish exit from NATO is now a possibility [File: Francois Lenoir/Reuters]

Sanctions imposed on Turkey by the United States on Monday under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) are likely to have several effects, highlighting the growing divergence in strategic thinking between the two NATO allies.

US President Donald Trump’s administration imposed sanctions for Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system, which the US has said is incompatible with NATO equipment and a potential threat to allied security.

The sanctions targeted Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries, the country’s military procurement agency, its chief Ismail Demir and three other senior officials.

The ejection of Turkey from the F-35 stealth jet programme in July 2019 demonstrated just how serious Washington was in relaying its displeasure at Turkey’s insistence it bought Russian air defence equipment rather than American.

Turkey, an integral part of the programme, was to be one of the few recipients of the advanced, next-generation F-35, as it was, and still is, a key member of NATO.

Turkey’s removal and now sanctions, the first of their kind against a key ally, indicate the crack in diplomatic relations is now in danger of becoming a rift as Turkey’s strategic needs diverge with those of the US.

The S-400 is one of Russia’s most advanced and marketable weapons systems in recent years [File: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters]

Turkey’s future in NATO

With positions rapidly hardening between Washington and Ankara the potential, for a Turkish exit from NATO is now a possibility.

The strategic picture for all NATO members has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War.

Designed to contain the then Soviet Union, NATO has constantly sought to renew itself and its mission but the founding principle that led to its creation, Russian containment, is not lost on Russia who would be more than happy to see the alliance dissolve.

While there is little danger of NATO crumbling, there is no doubt the alliance would be dealt a serious blow if Turkey were to leave.

There is precedence for a split from NATO, France withdrew from the alliance’s command structure in 1967 only to rejoin years later in 2009.

But Turkey is NATO’s largest contributor of military personnel after the US.

The Alliance would be dealt a blow it would be hard to recover from, especially as NATO’s focus has now changed.

The world is a very different place from when Turkey joined in 1952 and as the threat of a vast Russian invasion of the West recedes, Turkey increasingly looks to its own strategic needs and concerns.

Turkey has been vocal and insistent that it will not tolerate any kind of Kurdish autonomous region on its doorstep.

Ankara viewed the US backing of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), one of the few foreign military units seen by the US to be effective in the battle against ISIL, as a red flag and relations took a sharp turn for the worse.

The SDF is mostly made up of People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters which Turkey considers a “terrorist” group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“Turkey must choose,” US Vice President Mike Pence starkly warned Turkey last year, in front of gathered NATO members.

“Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history, or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?”

This blunt remark stung Turkey, its vice president, Fuat Oktay, retorted by tweeting, “The United States must choose. Does it want to remain Turkey’s ally or risk our friendship by joining forces with terrorists to undermine its NATO ally’s defence against its enemies?”

It is in this increasingly fractious atmosphere that Turkey received and subsequently tested its S-400 batteries, effectively calling Washington’s bluff.

The US Patriot air defence system, although combat-proven, is markedly inferior to the Russian S-400, which can track three times as many targets as the Patriot and shoot them down at five times the distance of its American competitor.

This means it can be both defensive but also enforce a no-fly zone against enemy aircraft and, to a limited extent, short-range ballistic missiles.

This operational flexibility, plus the fact that at $500m a battery it is a fraction of the cost of the Patriot, is what makes it so popular and why India is buying the S-400 for its own armed forces.

Impact of sanctions

The sanctions are aimed at Turkey’s state defence industry and will partly stifle its rapidly developing military-industrial complex.

Cooperation between US and Turkish defence companies will, at the very least, be put on hold.

This could push Turkey to form cooperation initiatives with other high-tech defence powers, relying less and less on American-made military equipment, diversifying who supplies its armed forces and boosting its own domestic weapons production.

In the short term, the sanctions will affect Turkey’s air force. Made up of older US aircraft like the F-4 and the F-16, Turkey is looking to modernise. The F-35 deal was an integral piece of this strategy, with parts of the plane being built in Turkey.

Now barred from the programme, it is looking to design its own advanced jet but it is a long way from being manufactured and flown. Its ageing F-16 fleet of fighter jets, the backbone of its air force, will need replacement parts but now it will not be able to buy them.

Older aircraft, despite upgrades, need more maintenance, this applies to the vast majority of Turkey’s air force, its refuelling tankers, transport planes and early warning aircraft all having been bought from the US.

The air force is already suffering from a shortage of trained pilots due to the crackdown after the attempted coup in 2016. The air force was seen as partly complicit in the attempt and large numbers of experienced personnel have been subsequently dismissed.

This will only add to the dire situation the air force now finds itself in. Increasingly active on several fronts, Turkish jets were involved in guarding Turkey’s naval vessels and oil exploration ships in the recent standoff with Greece this year. Its air force runs almost continuous operations against Kurdish fighters.

An air force in action requires maintenance, spare parts and re-arming. Turkey will now have to consider buying advanced aircraft from other countries.

France and Turkey are also increasingly at odds. France is helping Greece – Turkey’s neighbour and regional rival – re-arm itself with advanced Rafale fighter jets, armed with long-range and highly capable Meteor missiles.

Russia, which now stands to gain, is the only country practically able to help Turkey with this shortfall in its air force’s future needs.

At least until Turkey’s own designs for advanced domestic fighter jets come to fruition.

Source: Al Jazeera