By Arab News
By Yasir Yakis*
The Turkish media continues to keep the F-35 fighter jet deal on the agenda and insists that the country has not been treated fairly on this issue. Reports in the pro-government media mostly reflect on the negative developments about the program and the hurdles it encounters.
This attitude is an expression of Turkey’s resentment at being removed from a very important NATO joint-production project and the subsequent imposition of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Ankara was very eager to be part of the F-35 project. By ordering 100 F-35s at the outset, it was planning to equip its air force with the most advanced fighter aircraft that was scheduled to remain in service for the forthcoming five decades. It had invested $1.5 billion to manufacture 900 of the aircraft’s components. This was going to provide Turkey with an opportunity to develop its technology in the lucrative defense industry. Ankara’s contribution to the F-35 production chain was as much as 7 percent. This was a gigantic opportunity for a developing country like Turkey. This dream seems to have been shattered for the moment, unless a satisfactory exit can be found.
Turkey was removed from the F-35 program because it had purchased the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, but has the controversy reached the point of no return? The procedure to remove Turkey is now a done deal, but we do not yet know how President-elect Joe Biden will handle the issue. In view of his preference for using institutional mechanisms between countries, Turkey may find valid interlocutors in Washington in the new era.
The attitude of Pentagon professionals toward their Turkish counterparts has always been mild. Almost all of them drew to the attention of the US political decision-makers that Turkey’s removal from the project would have negative effects. In a 2018 letter to the House Armed Services Committee, then-US Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote that removing Turkey from the program could cause supply chain disruption and result in a delay in the delivery of 50 to 70 jets over a period of two years.
Vice Adm. Mathias Winter, in his capacity as F-35 program manager, also warned lawmakers that removing Turkey would slow the project’s progress across three production lines. A senior NATO military official warned of undesirable consequences if Turkey was removed from the program, and that this would violate the joint-venture agreement. And a report drafted by the US Government Accountability Office — an office that provides fact-based, nonpartisan information to Congress — pointed out that difficulties might arise with the procurement of several components if Turkey was excluded.
All these phases have now been left behind and Turkey’s removal from the project is a fact. There are judicial aspects to the controversy, but the gist of the conflict remains political. Therefore, it has to be weighed up using political criteria. In other words, certain files may be reopened.
Another important facet of the Turkey-US controversy is the CAATSA sanctions imposed on Ankara. The root cause of CAATSA is based on the F-35 and S-400 disagreements, so they are two intrinsically linked issues. The controversy over the CAATSA aspect of the problem has the potential to turn into a debate on semantics.
Outgoing US President Donald Trump has chosen the five least harmful sanctions out of a list of 12 to be imposed on Turkey. The most tangible is the one applicable to four bureaucrats in charge of Turkey’s defense industry. Turkey may challenge these sanctions on three grounds.
First is that the CAATSA text states that the sanctions will not affect the agreements and deals finalized before the adoption of the law by the US Congress. Since the Russian S-400 air defense system was purchased by Turkey before the CAATSA law was passed, the validity of these sanctions becomes questionable.
Second, the sanctions have been imposed on the head of the Defense Industry Presidency, Ibrahim Demir, and three of his colleagues. In the CAATSA text, Demir is referred to as “head of the defense procurement agency.” But his department is no longer a procurement agency. In the past, it was involved in procurement activities, but not any longer. Its main —and perhaps exclusive — task now is to develop defense industry projects and manage them. Procurements are carried out by private companies and they are not targeted by the sanctions.
Third, CAATSA sanctions are, by definition, directed at America’s “adversaries.” Turkey, a NATO ally, can hardly be considered an adversary. In fact, American interlocutors told their Turkish counterparts that they do not want to harm Turkey’s defense capabilities, as this would mean harming NATO’s own defense.
Optimistic commentators in Turkey believe that this debate leaves the door open for a rapprochement between the two countries. So we now have to wait and see how the Biden administration will approach the problem.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar