Time for a Reset on Turkey

By Gabe Lajeunesse

The language in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act would require sanctions on Turkey for their purchase of the Russian S-400 Air Defense System.  This would be a mistake. 

Mandated sanctions would pass over an opportunity to reset our strategic relationship with this key NATO ally, and could paint the transitioning Biden administration into a corner, at a particularly unique moment for our two nations.

The sanctions would be imposed under the auspices of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which lays out a menu of options for treatment of nations doing business with Iran, North Korea, and Russia.  In the case of Russia, the CAATSA sanctions were envisioned to pressure the Russian Federation over their behavior in the Ukraine, Syria, and their interference in the 2016 Presidential election.  Further, the some believe the threat of CAATSA sanctions may keep undecided nations more firmly in the U.S. orbit, particularly as they choose to make weapons purchases from either the United States or Russia.

These seem good aims, however in reality work cross purpose to our objectives in the region in multiple ways: 1) sanctions against Turkey at this volatile time, are likely to push them away from the U.S. and NATO rather than pull them in, 2) the logic of use of carrots and sticks associated with a U.S. arms monopoly requires some reconsideration, 3) there are immediate opportunities to strengthen U.S.-Turkish relations, and the proposed sanctions may derail that forward movement.

First, since Erdogan came to power, and especially in recent years with his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) coalition government with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Turkish foreign policy has departed from NATO’s positions in many areas, not the least of which in Syria and the Aegean. Whatever carrots and sticks the U.S. and NATO have brought to bear, Erdogan has chosen his own path, and is now perceived throughout the region as a powerbroker on par with the U.S. and Russia.   Sanctioning Turkey, especially at this moment of significant financial crisis, will likely result in an even further detachment from NATO values. 

Likewise, CAATSA and similar efforts at arms control seeking to penalize those who purchase non-U.S. weapons systems can backfire and should be reconsidered writ large.  The Turkish defense industry was built up after a U.S. arms embargo’s following the Cyprus dispute.   In more recent history, the Turkish emergence as a regional player in drone technology came as a direct result of Congresses’ refusal to allow export of MQ-9 Reapers drones to Turkey.  Sale of weapons increases a relationship, while refusal to sell will necessarily cause them to shop elsewhere or become self-reliant in defense production.  Certainly, it is not reasonable for the Turks to field the S-400 at the same time it accesses NATO air frames and technology, but the removal of Turkey from the F-35 program and limiting access to airframe upgrades is the right recourse, as well as exploring ways to replace the S-400 with a NATO system or helping them in a joint venture development at home.  Sanctions, again, will only push Turkey further away from the U.S. and NATO.

Finally, there is an imminent moment for rapprochement with Turkey.  The change in U.S. administration coincides with developments in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh that could bring the Turks more in line with U.S. objectives for the region.  Such moments can be fleeting and can change quickly as facts on the ground develop.  Turkish drone attacks against Russian backed Syrian forces demonstrate that Russian-Turkish relations are strained, and there is an opportunity to rebuild one of our vital partnerships in the region. 

Turkey has been a powerful ally in the past, with strong connections dating back to the Truman years.  There are a number of things we can be concerned about in this relationship, to include the S-400 purchase, Erdogan’s strongman status, and current tensions in the Mediterranean.  However, Turkey is a major powerbroker in the region, and many of our interests align.  Helping this NATO ally at a time of financial crisis and giving President-elect Biden room to maneuver should be the order of the day. 

Congress should remove the sanctions language from the NDAA, or the President should veto the legislation.  Now is the time for a relationship reset with the Turks.

*Gabe Lajeunesse is a Board Member of Turkish Heritage Organization and U.S. Air Force Veteran.