Russian planes carrying components for Ankara’s recently-purchased S-400 air defence system began touching down in Turkey a week ago, with the White House announcing on Wednesday that the deliveries made the country’s continued involvement in the F-35 programme “impossible”.
Turkey’s decision to move forward with the purchase of Russian-made S-400s has put US-Turkish ties in a tailspin and poses a threat to the stability of the NATO alliance, Gen. Jack Keane, ex-vice chief of staff of the US Army and independent adviser to President Donald Trump, has said.
“Purchasing the S-400 system literally flies in the face of NATO policy against acquiring Russian military systems and is unacceptable. We’ve not had tension like this between NATO countries for decades,” Keane said, speaking to The Times newspaper.
According to the general, Washington was correct in moving to drop Ankara from the F-35 programme, but the move poses “a real problem for NATO”.
Turkey, Keane recalled, was the bloc’s only Muslim member, and “the pathway to the Middle East and Asia,” as well as being “the most strategically located country in the alliance”.
Eric Edelman, a former US Ambassador to Turkey, echoed Gen. Keane’s concerns, saying that the US and Turkey were “entering a serious crisis”, and adding that he believed that it would be “a deep and prolonged one”.
“Turkey has not been a reliable NATO ally for some time but there is no mechanism for expelling bad allies,” Edelman added, while emphasising the country’s importance. According to the former diplomat, only “a fully democratic Turkey can and should be a strong ally for the US and NATO.”
US-Turkish relations have been poor for years, with tensions ratcheting up following the 2016 attempted coup d’état, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed on Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish businessman and cleric who resides in Pennsylvania. Erdogan has repeatedly requested Gulen’s extradition to Turkey, and has accused Washington of harbouring the cleric.
The two NATO allies have also clashed over their respective goals in the Syrian conflict, with Turkey launching a campaign against Kurdish militias they allege are affiliated with Turkish Kurdish militants classified as terrorists by Ankara, while the US has sought to aid these same militias in their bid to rid the region of terrorism and their efforts to set up an autonomous Kurdish-governed territory independent of Damascus.
Tensions between the US and Turkey escalated again in late 2017, after Ankara signed a $2.5 billion deal with Moscow on the purchase of four battalion sets of S-400 missile defence systems. A year later, the US offered Turkey a $3.5 billion contract for its Patriot missile systems, but Turkish authorities have yet to accept the deal, saying Moscow offered better terms for its missile defence system.
Turkey’s refusal to cancel its arms deal with Russia has prompted Washington to threaten Ankara with sanctions, and the scrapping of plans to deliver F-35s to the country, notwithstanding Turkey’s long-standing involvement in the fighter programme and its manufacture of multiple components for the weapons system. The Pentagon has calculated that the cost of switching to other F-35 partner nations will amount to about $600 million, with Turkey previously calculating that it has spent over $1 billion developing the planes.