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Turkey-US Relations: A Fork in the Road, But to Where?

By Dr. Ilan Fuchs
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

Turkey has been a growing force in the Middle East and North Africa since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power almost two decades ago.

In recent years, it has become clear that his aspirations include regaining some of the geopolitical power Turkey had during the Ottoman Empire. When it comes to U.S.-Turkey relations, it seems we are coming close to a fork in the road. But where will that road lead?

Erdoğan made it clear that he has no problem working with the U.S against adversaries like Iran and Russia, but now he has made a move directly threatening U.S interests. In November 2019, Turkey tested the S-400 radar detection capability on F-16 Falcon fighter jets. On October 16 of this year, the Turkish army conducted exercises with the Russian antiaircraft S-400 system. Now Turkey is reported to have gone further, namely testing the S-400 Hanud system to detect the movement of stealth F-35 Lightning II fighter jets and F-22 Raptors.

Turkey’s Erdogan Is Promoting What Can Be Called ‘Neo-Ottomanism’

Turkey is a NATO member but, as previously noted, Erdoğan is promoting what can be called “neo-Ottomanism.” This term encapsulates the idea that Turkey is interested in creating a sphere of influence like that of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Middle East and northern Africa for centuries. We are not thinking here about another Battle of Vienna in 1683, but of Turkey becoming a force to be reckoned with in the regional political arena and even in the hemisphere.

Although Turkey is a NATO member, it is playing an independent game with a new self-image. After the U.S. refused to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey, Erdoğan decided to buy a Russian or a Chinese system. The U.S. was then willing to sell but it was too late. The offer did not stop Erdoğan from buying a Russian advanced antiaircraft missile system. Recently, he went further when the Turkish army along with Russian experts made a live test firing.

Russian-Turkish relations have gone through a whirlwind in recent years. In Syria, they were on different sides for a while, leading to an aerial attack on November 24, 2015, when a Turkish F-16 shot down a Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft that caused two Russian fatalities. Turkey made an effort to improve relations after this incident, which culminated in the purchase of the S-400 system. Last month’s exercise was one of several organized in the past few years.

The Russians have a clear interest in separating Turkey from the U.S. First, there is the NATO Incirlik Air Base in Turkey with atomic weapons. It is very close to Russian territory.

And Turkey has the option of blocking passage of Russian ships from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean if there is ever a need. So playing nice with Erdoğan makes much sense.

The US Was Quick to Strongly Condemn the Turkish Weapons Test

The U.S. was quick to strongly condemn the Turkish weapons test. A Defense Department spokesperson said, “We have been clear: an operational S-400 system is not consistent with Turkey’s commitments as a U.S. and NATO ally. We object to Turkey’s purchase of the system and are deeply concerned with reports that Turkey is bringing it into operation.”

Where did this come from? There were some points of tension between Erdoğan and the U.S, mainly over the sanctuary the U.S. gave to Fethullah Gülen, his political rival whom Erdoğan accuses of masterminding the coup d’état attempt against him in 2016.

But this is a much bigger issue. Erdoğan is distancing himself from the U.S. because he is positioning himself with Iran and Qatar against Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States for regional power.

In an interview in a Hebrew-language publication, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, General Ahaton Farkash, estimated that Turkey is not interested in an armed conflict in the Middle East. Rather, Ankara is standing firmly alongside the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies like Qatar and Iran to minimize the hegemony of the Sunni U.S. allies and Israel.

The issue is not so much the U.S., but the desire to minimize the power of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel. Iran has a long rivalry with these regional powers and the U.S., so distancing himself from the U.S. makes political sense to Erdoğan.

Erdoğan might also be hedging his bets and anticipating a Biden presidency that will be much more eager to appease all the international players, including Iran which suffered the wrath of the Trump administration.

Does that mean the U.S. can stay calm? No. Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that “Turkey must be sanctioned immediately for its purchase and use of this system. President Trump’s failure to follow the law and his affinity for [Turkish President] Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pose a serious threat to our national security and that of our NATO allies and partners in Europe.”

Erdoğan’s Blatant Action against Core American Interests Cannot Go without a Response

Why Erdoğan is breaking ranks with NATO is not hard to see. Such a blatant action against core American interests cannot go without a response. The timing of the weapons exercise during the election campaign was a good move. It was an attempt to divert attention from his bold action, but this was also significant a move to look the other way.

It is worthwhile mentioning that the decade-old United Nations weapons embargo against Iran was not renewed, giving Iran the ability to begin revitalizing its old and dilapidated arsenal of fighter jets, tanks and perhaps the S-400. Even with its weakening economy, Iran might start a shopping spree that would send a clear message to its rivals in the region, so that the Turkish position and silent support of Iran are clearly seen by all the regional players.

What is the solution? I am not sure, but obviously silence is not an option. It is one thing to play king of the hill in the Middle East, but it is a completely different thing to take a stab at a superpower that has been an ally since the 1950s.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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