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US-Turkish Relations Come To A Head, But Is A Break Inevitable?

Turkish US flags

Turkish Pres. Reçep Tayyip Erdogan believes the U.S. will stop short of forcing Turkey out of NATO, destroying its currency, and pushing it into an alliance with Russia and the People’s Republic of China. But is his confidence justified?

U.S. Pres. Donald Trump could also direct the State Dept. to lift its embargo on the sale of U.S. defense equipment to Cyprus (inexplicably in place since 1985) and penalize Turkey for using U.S. defense equipment illegally for the 1974 invasion and subsequent occupation of the northern 37 percent of Cyprus.

Pres. Trump’s signing of a $716-billion defense spending bill on August 13, 2018, included an amendment which prohibited the sale by the US to Turkey of F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft unless the Defense Department issued a report downplaying the damage to the secure operation of the F-35 if it was adopted by the Turkish Air Force while the TAF was also operating the Russian S-400 air defense missile system. The Pentagon has historically given Turkey the benefit of the doubt, but this time Pres. Erdogan has escalated his hostility to the U.S., which may make it difficult for the DoD to justify release of the F-35. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had, in a letter to Congress in August 2018, urged against stopping the F-35 transfer.

Significantly, Sec. Mattis made his case to safeguard the F-35’s industrial/cost base, but the sale of a proposed 100 F-35As to Turkey could be offset by a sale of a similar number of F-35Bs to the Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) Air Force. Trump would simultaneously punish Turkey and bolster the ROC. And, many argue, hasn’t Turkey already left the West in all but name? And doesn’t the U.S. need, in any event, to bolster the ROC and Japan sooner rather than later if it is to contain the PRC in the Pacific?

In Washington, DC, on August 15, 2018, it was no coincidence that the private American Hellenic Institute (AHI) announced the publication of an Issue Brief on the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) under which the United States had prohibited the sales of US defense articles/services to the Republic of Cyprus since 1985. The ITAR listed the Republic of Cyprus, along with countries such as Sudan and Somalia, as a country to which transfers of US defense articles/services were prohibited. Related: Caught In The Crossfire: The Unintended Victim Of Iran Sanctions

In June 2018, AHI discussed the issue with State Department officials and submitted a memorandum with the key points which were in the Issue Brief. The officials forwarded the memorandum to the appropriate office for review. Since June 2018, AHI had raised the issue in follow-up meetings with the State Department. The Issue Brief described the ITAR, analyzed why the prohibition on the Republic of Cyprus was unlawful, explained how the State Department itself could remove the Republic of Cyprus from the application of the ITAR prohibition and concludes that legislation was not necessary.

“We contend the State Department has the legal authority to remedy what has been, for years, an unlawful prohibition on arms transfers to the Republic of Cyprus,” AHI President Nick Larigakis said. “We urge the State Department to exercise the requisite political will to get this done. It is in the best interests of the United States for the Republic of Cyprus to look to the United States, and not any other nation, to procure its defense materials.”

By GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on August 16 2018 said:
    What is wrong with the United States under President Trump? More sanctions on Russia, punitive tariffs on China, intrusive sanctions to be introduced on Iran, even a proposed legislation to sue OPEC for its trade practices under US antitrust laws and now sanctions on a NATO ally, Turkey.

    The spat between the United States and Turkey reportedly began when the Turkish President Eceep Tayyip Erdogan dared to defy President Trump on two recent US demands. The first was to release an American Pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was jailed 21 months ago in a widespread crackdown after a failed coup in Turkey two years ago. The second demand was to comply with US sanctions on Iran.

    President Erdogan says the coup was orchestrated from the United States by a Muslim cleric, Fethulah Gulen. Turkish authorities have demanded that he be extradited but American officials have refused and the detained American pastor and some other Americans are widely seen as bargaining chips.

    The dispute has escalated with both sides imposing sanctions against each other. A worsening dispute has led to a weakening of the Turkish Lira against the US dollar. It also reverberated through the global economy hastening a broad flight of money from emerging markets.

    President Erdogan has shown no sign of backing down. He seemed determined to tough it out. He called on Turks to sell their gold and dollars and buy liras to bolster the Turkish currency.

    The Turkish leader has served notice to the United States that unless it starts respecting Turkey’s sovereignty and proves that it understands Turkey’s security concerns, his country’s partnership with the United States could be in jeopardy.

    President Erdogan believes he has stronger trump cards to play than President Trump. He is convinced that Turkey is too important for the United States and NATO for the US to try to destroy its economy and its currency.

    While the US could refuse to sell its F-35s to Turkey, lift the embargo on the sale of US defence equipment to Cyprus and penalize Turkey for using US defence equipment illegally for the 1974 invasion and subsequent occupation of northern Cyprus, the escalating dispute between the two countries has many global geopolitical, strategic and economic implications for US sanctions against Iran, the war in Syria, NATO and closer attachment to the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership.

    Turkey is a major regional power on the crossroads between Asia and Europe. It has the world’s 13th largest economy estimated in 2018 at $2.17 trillion based on purchasing power parity (PPP). It is also emerging as the energy hub of the European Union (EU) with the Russian-built Turk Stream gas pipeline which will bring Russian gas supplies to Turkey and the EU under the Black Sea and the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) which will bring gas from the Caspian to the EU.

    Even before the spat with Washington, Turkey announced that it doesn’t recognize US sanctions against Iran and that it will look after its own interests by continuing to buy Iranian crude oil and gas. Turkey accounts for 7% of Iranian oil exports. Furthermore, President Erdogan announced Turkey’s readiness to conduct trade in national currencies with China, Russia, Iran and Ukraine which account for the largest volume of bilateral trade.

    President Erdogan has often touted his relationship with Russia as a signal that he has an alternative to relations with the West. With his escalating dispute with the US, he may be more inclined to attach his country to the powerful Russian-Chinese strategic partnership which is already starting to shape the world’s geopolitics and economy.

    Furthermore, President Erdogan may be persuaded to join the economic association known as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) which is emerging as the most powerful economic bloc in the world.

    Turkey could also move closer to Russian efforts in ending the war in Syria and a possible rapprochement with Syria. It could also block Cyprus development of its newly discovered gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean and a future unification of Cyprus.

    Were the US to sell its F-35s to Taiwan, it would transform an escalating trade war with China into an explosive one with unforeseen repercussions.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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