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Erdogan’s Folly


By refusing American requests not to buy the S-400 missile defense system from the Russians, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has quite unnecessarily caused great damage both to Turkey’s economy and to its military. A report on his folly, by the always informative Burak Bekdil, is here:

US CAATSA sanctions on Turkey’s defense industry are now official. The costs to Turkey of its S-400 deal with Russia have been enormous, both strategically and economically. Those costs will continue to rise exponentially and will push Turkey further into the Russian orbit.

Only three days after Turkey’s Islamist strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sighed with relief at having side-stepped heavy European sanctions, he got slapped with heavy American ones. In this three-party game, Turkey is the loser, Russia is the winner, and the West is breaking even.

At a summit on December 10-11, the leaders of the EU agreed to impose light sanctions on an unspecified number of Turkish officials and entities involved in gas drilling in disputed Mediterranean waters. They deferred more punishing sanctions, such as trade tariffs or an arms embargo, until after they consult with the incoming Biden administration.

Erdogan’s sigh of relief was premature. When the EU leaders imposed light sanctions on Turkish officials linked to Turkish drilling for gas in “disputed” Mediterranean waters (which everyone in the E.U. recognizes as indisputably belonging to Cyprus and Greece), they were not giving up on imposing much harsher measures, but only waiting for the Biden Administration to be installed in order to coordinate with the Americans harsher measures – trade tariffs, an arms embargo – that might be taken against Turkey. Erdogan knows that for him the new administration is an ill wind. Biden called him an “autocrat,” suggested he would support the Turkish political opposition, and blamed Erdogan for allowing ISIS members to travel freely through Turkey to Syria and Iraq, a charge for which there is copious evidence. 

But on December 14, the US announced that it would be imposing sanctions on Turkey via the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 long-range air and anti-missile defense system. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US would ban all export licenses and authorizations for Turkey’s defense procurement agency (SSB in its Turkish acronym) while issuing asset and visa restrictions against SSB’s president, Ismail Demir, and other Turkish defense industry officials. “Despite our warnings, Turkey moved ahead with its purchase and testing of the S-400 system from Russia. Today’s sanctions on Turkey’s SSB demonstrate the US will fully implement #CAATSA. We will not tolerate significant transactions with Russia’s defense sector,” Pompeo tweeted.

Only three days after the E.U. imposed “light” sanctions on Turkey, the Americans came down much harder. By banning all American export licenses and authorizations for Turkey’s defense procurement agency, Washington has prevented Turkey from acquiring a whole host of weapons, some of which might only have a small but indispensable American part; these are now off-limits to the Turkish military. It’s a major blow to Erdogan, and has been a long time coming.

This is not the only price Ankara will have to pay for Erdoğan’s Russian romance. Turkey has paid $2.5 billion for a defense system it will probably never use. Over the summer, Turkey test-activated the S-400 system and then re-packed it again. Quite an expensive device to put back in the box.

Bekdil notes that the Turks spent $2.5 billion on the S-400 anti-missile defense system, but – having tested it — promptly packed it up again. Were the Turks afraid that if they left the S-400 system exposed, some Western power, or possibly perfidious Israel, might target it? Or was it simply that they saw no point in deploying it right away since there was clearly, at this point, no military enemy on the horizon? Bekdil says its “quite an expensive device to put back in the box.” One wonders if Erdogan’s o’erweening pride, the pride of a neo-Ottman padishah, and his determination not to do the bidding of the Americans, caused him to go through with the S-400 deal with Russia, despite his being aware of the almost certain negative consequences. He cannot allow himself to be seen as backing down, even when backing down makes eminent good sense. Or perhaps he thought that in the end the Americans would not go through with their threats to embargo sales of the F-35 to Turkey. How very wrong he has turned out to be.

In addition, the S-400 acquisition has cost Turkey its partnership in the US-led multinational Joint Strike Fighter program, which is building the next-generation F-35 fighter, the Lightning II. Turkey’s dismissal from the program will cost its own defense industry around $10 billion over the next 10 years. The dismissal also deprives the Turkish Air Force of a strategic firepower asset. To add insult to injury, the F-35s denied Turkey will now go to the air force of its rival, Greece. “The United States welcomes ‘at the highest levels’ Greece’s interest in purchasing F-35 fighter jets,” said US Ambassador to Athens Geoffrey Pyatt. Greece wants to buy 18 to 24 used or new F-35s….

The Americans like to involve fellow members of NATO in the manufacture of components for new weapons, as a way to increase cooperation among the defense industries of NATO members and to ensure sales to those who, by sharing in the manufacture, and thus in revenues from sales, have an economic incentive to buy those same weapons.. Turkish manufacturers were involved in building more than 900 parts for the F-35, and Pentagon officials said in November that it had found replacement suppliers for nearly all of them. Turkey had been expected to make $10 billion over the next decade, from the parts it was to have manufactured for the F-35; now it will receive nothing.

Turkey had hoped to sell attack helicopters to Pakistan worth $1.5 billion. Unfortunately, the engine for the helicopter is made by a company, LHTEC, a joint venture that is owned by the British Rolls-Royce and Honeywell, an American company. And that participation by Honeywell in the helicopter’s manufacture was enough to prevent the Turkish sale of the helicopters to Pakistan.

The U.S. is not the only member of NATO that has put an embargo on weapons and weapon parts sent to Turkey. Germany has intermittently placed embargoes on weapons sales to Turkey, given that such weapons were being used against Kurds in northern Syria. Other reasons that have prompted Germany to reinstitute previous embargoes include Turkey’s aggressive moves in the territorial waters of Greece and Cyprus. The result is that this new generation tank, which was supposed to be a signal achievement by the Turks, has been stopped in its tracks because Germany refuses to supply the engine and transmission that the Altay tank requires, and theTurks have been unable to find replacements in order to go forward. So for now, the Altay tank is on hold.

Canada has also halted the export of its weapons parts to Turkey. In this case, it had nothing to do with Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-missile defense system. Canada had been increasingly disturbed by Ankara’s use of Turkey’s “finest armed drone the Bayrktar TB2” – as Bekdil describes it – against the Kurds in Syria, and against the anti-Islamist forces of General Haftar in Libya. But what finally pushed Canada to a ban on exports to Turkey of the key Canadian-made parts for the Bayrktar TB2 was Ankara’s transfer of those drones to Azerbaijan for use in its recent war against Armenia. Erdogan was furious at the Canadian move, but why should he ever have expected otherwise?

But Erdoğan refuses to acknowledge his mistakes or his failures. In 2019, when the threat of US sanctions was crystal clear, Erdoğan said that in addition to the S-400 acquisition, Turkey and Russia would jointly produce the S-500, an advanced version of the air defense system. “There will be joint production of the S-500 after the S-400,” he told an audience in May 2019. 

As recently as August 2020, Russia and Turkey signed a contract on the delivery of the second batch of S-400s. “The contract has been signed,” TASS news agency reported, quoting Alexander Mikheyev, the head of Russia’s state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport….

Erdogan not only failed to heed endless American warnings about buying the Russian S-400 anti-missile defense system, but redoubled the dose, defying the Americans by announcing that Turkey would jointly produce, with Russia, an advanced version of the S-400. This was sure to infuriate Washington; apparently Erdogan keeps thinking he can defy Washington without repercussions, and he is consistently proven wrong, but continues to blunder along in his stubborn, and self-defeating, way.

Instead of Erdogan trying to smooth things over with the U.S. and the other members of NATO – Canada, Germany – that have instituted embargoes on the sale of certain weapons components to Turkey, he seems to think he can somehow get away with continuing to ignore their demands. It hasn’t worked out. He will no longer have any F-35s, and Turkish manufacturers, who contribute 900 separate parts, to the Stealth fighter jet, have been shut out, losing $1 billion annually in sales. The S-400 anti-missile system that Erdogan insisted on buying, thus triggering the American refusal to sell Turkey the F-35s, was promptly put “back in the box” after a first test. Was it because the Turks quickly realized, to their chagrin, that they were not at present up to the task of operating the S-400? The defense analyst Peter Wilson has noted that “the real issue is that the civilian and military leadership face investment choices that go beyond the decision to buy the S-400. To be effective, the S-400 needs to be deployed within a larger integrated air and missile defense system and requires a very skilled military workforce to operate. Otherwise, it will prove to be a costly and expensive military extravagance.” Perhaps the Turkish military, having tried out the S-400 system with Russian help, has realized it has to do a great deal more training of its own workforce – or have them trained by the Russians? – in order to have a military capable of operating the S-400 within a much larger and complicated system.

Erdogan’s record so far, in trying to build a better-equipped and more powerful military is not impressive.

Consider only these dismal results:

  1. Turkey is no longer able to buy the F-35s, the Stealth fighter jet that so many countries – e.g. the U.A.E. – covet. That is a result of its insistence on buying the Russian S-400 anti-missile defense system, despite American warnings not to do so.
  2. Turkey is no longer able to manufacture and sell 900 components of the Stealth fighter jet to the Americans. This results in an annual loss of $1 billion.
  3. Turkey had agreed to sell 30 attack helicopters to Pakistan for $1.5 billion. But it turned out that the T800-4A turboshaft engines for the helicopter were made by a company, LHTEC, that is a joint venture of a British company, Rolls-Royce, and of an American company, Honeywell. Because of Honeywell’s involvement, the U.S. sanctions were invoked, and that officially killed the deal.
  4. Turkey cannot buy from Germany the engine and transmission it needs for the new generation of its very own – “indigenously produced” — main battle tank, the Altay. Turkey’s Defense Procurement Office has looked everywhere, but so far has been unable to find another seller of components suitable to replace the German parts. The German embargo reflected unhappiness in Berlin at Turkey’s aggressive moves in the maritime waters of both Greece and Cyprus, and its continued attacks on the Kurds in Syria and in Iraq. Erdogan’s own vituperative comments on Germans as “Nazis” could not have helped. The upshot is that the new battle tank is on hold.
  5. Canada placed an embargo on components it made for Turkey’s “finest armed drone the Bayrktar TB2” – as Bekdil describes it –against the Kurds in Syria, and, against the anti-Islamist forces of General Haftar in Libya. But what finally pushed Canada to a ban on exports to Turkey of the key Canadian-made parts for the Bayrktar TB2 was Ankara’s transfer of those drones to Azerbaijan for use in its recent war against Armenia.

Erdogan is now stuck with the Russian S-400 system that the Turks can’t use. He’s lost the chance to buy – or to manufacture and sell components for – the top-of-the-line F-35s. He can’t sell his attack helicopters to Pakistan for $1.5 billion, can’t manufacture a new version of Turkey’s main battle tank, the Altay, can’t get the Canadian components Turkey needs to produce its Bayrktar T82 advanced armed drone. On the weapons front, as in so many aspects of statecraft, it’s downhill all the way for the obstinate, foolish, self-defeating Recep Tayyip Erdogan.. What banana peel will he slip on next?



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