The Trump administration is reportedly moving forward with sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of the SA-21 Growler (S-400 to amateurs. Professionals use the NATO designation) SAM systems. According to a US official the announcement will be made later today. Sanctions have long been threatened for the Turkish decision to buy the Russian air defense system, but the US was reluctant to pull the trigger. Instead, Turkey’s part in the F-35 Lightning II program was minimized. Further, it was prohibited from purchasing the advanced warplane as a further penalty instead.
Now the Trump administration is apparently ready to pull the trigger on sanctions, a move that will almost assuredly add more pressure to US-Turkey relations and affect the floundering Turkish economy. The coming set of sanctions, according to administration sources, will be specific in its targeting. Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries, and its head are expected to bear the brunt. When news of possible sanctions started to circulate, the Turkish lira felt the effect and weakened by 1.4%. Turkey’s economy is already on the ropes now. The COVID-19 related slowdown, inflation, and depleted foreign reserves.
This move also puts the Biden administration in a position where it will almost certainly have to keep the pressure on Turkey through the coming months. That might not be an issue for the incoming president since he has spoke in the past about adopting a harder line with regards to Turkey and its leadership.
Turkey’s reach has been exceeding its military, and diplomatic means in recent months. Erdogan’s efforts to deepen its footprint in the Mediterranean, and Middle East is placing his nation in real danger of becoming overextended at some point in the not-too-distant future. The occupation of northern Syria, decisive intervention in Libya’s civil war, and seeking economic advantage in the natural gas-rich waters of the Eastern Mediterranean are the better-known Turkish adventures of late. There are others going on in places like the Horn of Africa, and in the Persian Gulf region too. Erdogan has been assertively going after perceived threats and enemies to Turkey, while simultaneously prowling after economic interests that hold the prospect of a jackpot level payout down the road.
Unfortunately for Erdogan, there are two factors coming into play which threaten to hinder, or perhaps entirely derail Turkey’s ambitions at some point. As mentioned in the above paragraph, Turkey is running a very real danger of overextending itself in the near future. The Turkish armed forces are stretched thin. Since the failed coup in 2016 Turkey’s military has lost thousands of capable officers to show trials, and purges. Operations in Syria and Libya are costing billions of dollars, and Turkish troops are taking losses in both places. In short, the Turks cannot afford a new military commitment now or in the near future.
The second factor working against Turkey’s regional ambitions is the absence of a clear vision. Ankara’s moves certainly haven’t been guided by ideology, or political alliances on the international front. This is where Turkish actions, and ambitions become confounding as it is working with its allies and friends on some fronts, while directly opposed to them on others. Syria and Libya are two prime examples. Turkey’s military incursions into Syria were frowned upon by many of its NATO allies. However, many of those same nation-states fully support Turkey’s intervention in Libya. In recent years Ankara has deepened the relationship between Turkey and Russia at a time when tensions between Moscow and the West has skyrocketed. The Turks committed to buying SA-21 surface-to-air missiles from Russia which forced the United States, to cancel the sale of F-35 Lightnings to Turkey.
Compounding Turkey’s burgeoning issues on the foreign front is the current state of the Turkish economy. Turkey is working to prevent a currency crisis in the face of economic turbulence brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. That topic will be touched on later in the week as we hopefully have the opportunity to expand the discussion on Turkey.
The Turkish government had a weapons system procurement decision to make and it was a simple one at that: Turkey could purchase the Russian SA-21 (S-400 to amateurs) surface-to-air missile system, or remain in the F-35 Lightning II program. Ankara could not have both. The Trump administration made it clear that if Turkey decided to purchase and accept delivery of the SA-21 Growler it would bring about their immediate exclusion from the F-35 program.
Turkey made its choice and took delivery of the first SA-21 missiles and launchers this week. Today the US responded with the announcement that it is removing Turkey from the F-35 program because the “F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities”.
Turkish President Erdogan had long assumed the Trump administration would relent and allow his nation to possess both the SA-21 system, and F-35 fighter planes. He was wrong, and now his country is on the outside looking in with regards to the US program.