Let’s get to the point: Turkey’s military relationship with the US is not going to be vastly changed by the ongoing political punching match between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump over American Pastor Andrew Brunson and an array of other issues. Politics, especially today, is noisy, distracting, and vicious.
Military-to-military relations operate on a different tempo than bilateral politics. The Pentagon said there has been no interruption in the military relationship between Washington and Ankara amid a tariff war.
The plight of Brunson, an American citizen held illegally in Turkey since 2016, is driving the current war of words and economics. The White House is clear on the fact that Brunson is being treated as a political prisoner by Turkey and so is sanctioning some of its highest officials.
Ankara tried to raise the deportation of Pennsylvania-based Turkish fugitive Fethullah Gulen and later asked the White house to drop investigations into one of Turkey’s main banks, Halkbank, for breaking US sanctions over the financial institution’s dealings with Iran. This White House is blunt: A real NATO ally wouldn’t have arrested Brunson in the first place; and the Gulen issue is completely off limits.
The US Congress is acting in concert with the White House in a sign of unusual unity. Turkey is an F-35 program partner, with key facilities in the country geared specifically for the program and tied ultimately to Ankara’s NATO flank. Turkey is currently slated to receive two of the jets, but Congress is slated to block the transfer as part of the Brunson affair. Just two months ago, despite the growing political crisis, Lockheed Martin formally handed over the two F-35s for Turkish pilots to begin training alongside American pilots in Arizona. These jets are the first of what Ankara hopes will be a robust 100-aircraft fleet.
Moreover, the $716 billion John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 asks the Pentagon to produce a plan within 90 days to outline how Turkey will be phased out of the production chain of the F-35 and how much this change of plan would cost the US and other countries. While that study is being conducted, the American defense sales strategy will need to undergo a rethink if there is a strong trickle-down effect. It is important to point out that Erdogan and Trump will likely be at the UN General Assembly meeting next month.
Turkey’s dealings with Russia are causing an American headache. The Pentagon is concerned about Turkey’s relationship with Moscow, especially regarding the $2.5 billion deal to purchase and eventually deploy Russia’s S-400 missile defense system. This standalone, non-interoperable air defense missile system adds nothing to Turkey’s defense and is a political card that will allow Russian military personnel into the NATO country to tend to its maintenance and repair. Yet, if Turkey’s economy is suffering for a prolonged period of time, payment to Russia will not come soon — unless Qatar injects more money into Turkey’s ailing economy.
The Turkish-US political relationship is also fraying over Washington’s training support for Ankara’s enemies in northern Syria. Turkey is seeking to expel the American-trained and equipped Kurdish forces that were necessary in fighting Daesh. Equally contentious for America and NATO is the airbase at Incirlik. It has been a political pawn since its inception, so whatever occurs with the base and whether there are restrictions is all part of the political theater.
Turkey sees itself as being in a position of power. It is one of the oldest and largest of the NATO forces and sees itself as an ally of the organization, as well as the “tip of the spear” in the fight against Daesh both internally and externally.
Now back to the main point: Turkish-US military cooperation continues to deepen in Syria despite the crisis in political relations. The two NATO allies are engaging in joint military patrols in northern Syria’s Manbij region. These patrols are building local capacity for Ankara in terms of transfer of authority and local governance. Turkey likes to show its success in Afrin as a model. Naturally, Manbij has been a point of tension in Turkish-US relations since the Syrian Democratic Forces captured the city from Daesh.
Importantly, a large part of the SDF is made up of the Syrian Kurdish militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is considered by Ankara as a terrorist group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But that is about to change thanks to the joint Turkish-American patrols. These patrols will create an environment that will lead the YPG to move east of the Euphrates. With this move, Turkey will control a broad swath of northern Syria that might be in better hands than it would be with Damascus, which may be beneficial to Washington in the future.
Nevertheless, given the increasingly toxic Turkish-US relationship and its unpredictability, the potential fallout from an accident that is not de-conflicted quickly could ruin immediate military-to-military relations. That is a possibility, but the military bonds between Turkey and the US remain strong. Nowadays assumptions and institutions are constantly shifting — the constant is the Turkish-American military-to-military relationship, which will continue despite all the theatrics and Twitter explosions.