United We Stand, Divided We Fall: The Need to Solve the Current Crisis in Turkish – US Relations

By THO Nonresident, Fellow Altan Atamer

Over a decade ago, Turkish – US relations were in markedly different places then where they are now. Differences of opinion regarding the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 had put a strain on Turkish – US ties. A change in administrations, represented hope for the simmering of tensions. Fortunately, the inauguration of Barack Obama exceeded these hopes. In what would be a telling commitment to the strengthening of Turkish – US ties, then President of the United States, Barack Obama made sure that one of his administration’s first foreign visits, and the first among Muslim majority countries, would be to Turkey (Shipman 2009). Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, even emphasized that Obama’s visit reflected “the value we place on our friendship with Turkey” (Guardian 2009). Naturally, this shift in tenor manifested itself in multiple positive developments. Both countries committed to the joint pursuit of peace settlements in numerous regional conflicts ranging from the southern Caucasus to the issue of Palestine and even extending to a political solution regarding the reunification of Cyprus. The strengthening of the Turkish – US alliance also provided tangible benefits for the two countries national interests. Both countries promised to help combat the threats of al Qaeda and the PKK and work on improving oil transporting infrastructure (CNN 2009). It seemed, then, that the inauguration of Obama would do more than just bring in a new administration. Crucially, it would change the trajectory of Turkish – US relations for the better. Unfortunately, this rapprochement would not last. It is now 2021, and Presidents Biden and Erdoğan have yet to even speak over the phone (Fraser 2021). 

Currently, both countries have an exhaustive and diverse list of grievances levied at one another. But what looks to be like one of the biggest thorns in the side of improving Turkey – US relations is the formers recent purchase and testing of the Russian S-400 missile system, and their subsequent ejection from the F-35 program. According to the Turkish perspective, however, Turkey’s purchase of Russian weaponry was a result of an American reluctance to supply their NATO ally with Patriot missiles that came with a technology transfer (Fraser 2019). The Associated Press even reports that the technology transfer represented “a national security concern” to the Americans (Fraser 2019). In other words, due to a perceived incompatibility between the national security concerns of two NATO allies, Turkey had to acquire the Russian made missiles rather than a system that is integrable into NATO’s broader defense structure. 

Unfortunately, this feeling of being unappreciated and mistreated is not something new to the Turkish military. Despite Turkey possessing NATO’s second largest military and sharing borders with countries that are currently active war zones, the US has a history of not prioritizing the security concerns of Turkey. Most notoriously, the US Congress refused to sell to Turkey US drones in 2010 and 2012 (Hofman 2020). This forced the Turkish military to indigenously produce their own advanced drones (Farooq 2019). While Turkey is now one of the most advanced drone powers in the world, to needlessly jeopardize the security of an allied nation by refusing to sell them adequate weaponry for years has, rightfully, called into question America’s commitment to Turkish national security. Turkish demands for technology transfers with the Patriot systems ensure that their national security would not be dependent on the whim of the US Congress. After all, even the Russians were willing to grant Turkey the concession of a technology transfer with their sale of the S-400 missiles.

Yet, what was equally concerning to Turkey was the hypocrisy exhibited by the US. Designed to deter and counter states that buy “Russian equipment,” Turkey has recently been subject to CAATSA sanctions for their purchase of the S-400 system (Stein 2020). Furthermore, fears that the S-400 missiles will jeopardize the “stealth” of the F-35 fighter planes and NATO by transmitting valuable data to the Russians have seen Turkey ejected from the program (Fraser 2019). And while these are all viable concerns, there continues to be no sanctions placed on NATO member Greece for their purchase and testing of the Russian made S-300 missile system. It is also important to note that, although more advanced than the S-300 system, the Turkish government has offered to form a working group with the US to inspect their S-400 missiles (Reuters 2020), while the Greek S-300 system has been subject to upgrades by the Russian military and, yet, still participated in recent NATO drills (Defense World 2020). 

These observations are not to dismiss the security interests of the US and NATO. To be clear, US concern for NATO interoperability and coalitional security does have merit. On many occasions, the US has clearly expressed to Turkey, even prior to its purchase of the S-400, that the missiles would threaten the entire F-35 project, and that, should they choose to finalize their purchase, it would have to face expulsion from the program (Fraser 2021). Moreover, the US contends that it has offered to sell Turkey NATO compatible Patriot missiles that would meet Turkey’s security needs “multiple times” over both the Obama and Trump administrations, although Turkey has refused each offer on account of its demands for a technology transfer (Rogers and Gibbons-Neff 2019). In this sense, the US believes that Turkey has demonstrated a lack of commitment to NATO’s joint protection and that the CAATSA sanctions and their expulsion from the F-35 program are a product of their own doing. As such, both the US and Turkey do not appear to be content with the treatment they are receiving from one another. The situation has become a lose-lose for both alliance members.

But while the current situation does look grim, there does seem to be some glimmer of hope on the horizon. Notably, the Turkish government has shown signs of intensifying its “outreach” to the Biden administration. Central to this outreach is Turkey’s desire to rejoin the F-35 program (Reuters 2021). In return, Turkey has suggested that it could keep their S-400 systems inactive, alleviating NATO’s fears that Russia would collect data on the F-35 (Uras 2021). Like Obama in 2009, Turkey has taken the initiative and indicated that it is willing to engage with the US in constructive dialogue and trust building exercises. Hopefully, the US government will positively respond to Turkey in a timely and understanding manner. After all, NATO is at its strongest when all of its members, especially its two largest armies, are functioning in harmony with each other. The security of the alliance, and the interests of its members, depend on a strong Turkish – US relationship.  


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