Geopolitical Ramifications of US Sanctions on Turkey

President Trump and President Erdogan of Turkey
Credit: The White House from Washington, DC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. imposed sanctions on Turkey on Dec. 14, 2020, under section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for the purchase of Russian S-400 missile system. Donald Trump and Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan share a strong rapport, and as a result the decision of the Trump administration at the end of its tenure has surprised many observers. 

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs R. Clark Cooper during a press briefing on Dec. 16, 2020, while commenting on the decision to  impose sanctions stated that “… there’s no clock (timeline) on the U.S. government applying them.”

Turkey’s purchase of S-400 systems

Turkey received the delivery of the first batch of S-400 missile system in the summer of 2019. The U.S. promptly removed Turkey from the F-35 program. Washington has argued that the S-400 system could be utilised by Moscow to gain access to classified details of the Lockheed Martin F-35 jets, and also poses a serious threat to the NATO alliance (Turkey’s ties with NATO members have gone downhill, with EU and other members accusing Erdogan of exhibiting increasingly authoritarian tendencies in recent years).

The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington had warned Turkey on numerous occasions about the negative implications of S-400; first, the security of U.S. military technology and personnel would be adversely impacted and second, the purchase of S-400 would not just contribute to financially strengthening Russia’s defense sector but also facilitate Russian access to Turkey’s armed forces defense industry.

U.S. offer to Turkey

It would be pertinent to mention that the U.S. had offered Turkey, Raytheon’s Patriot missile system in 2013 and 2017. Ankara declined the Patriot on both occasions because the U.S. refused to provide a transfer of the system’s sensitive missile technology.

Turkish President Erdogan expressed his disappointment at the U.S. decision to impose sanctions, saying that this decision challenged Turkey’s sovereignty. Erdogan while referring to the sanctions also said that “This has been imposed for the first time against us, a NATO member. What kind of an alliance is this?”

He also made the point that the primary aim of these sanctions was to impede Turkey’s progress in the defense sector and make it dependent upon the U.S.

Impact on Turkey’s defense industry

Certain observers are of the view that the recent sanctions are unlikely to impact Turkey’s defense industry given the fact that the sanctions do not directly target state-owned military companies and the private sector. According to a report, Turkey’s purchases of an estimated $1.4 billion from the U.S. account for 45% of Turkey’s total defense imports. Turkey’s air force modernization plans could receive a significant setback and the expulsion from the F-35 joint striker program has already impacted the air force sector. Significantly, around half ($648 million) of the imports from the U.S. were for the Turkish Air Force sector.

Reactions to the sanctions

Reactions to the decision of the Trump administration were predictable. Greece which has strained ties with Turkey welcomed the U.S. sanctions. Iran on the other hand which itself has had to deal with multiple sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, ever since U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was critical of the U.S. decision to impose sanctions. 

While commenting on the U.S. Sanctions imposed on Turkey, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated, “U.S. addiction to sanctions and contempt for international law at full display again. We strongly condemn recent U.S. sanctions against Turkey and stand with its people and government.”

First, the Turkey-Russia bilateral relationship has grown significantly in recent times, and the imposition of these sanctions are likely to give a further boost to Turkey-Russia ties. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov while condemning the sanctions said that the Trump administration’s imposition of sanctions was “another manifestation of an arrogant attitude towards international law.”

Second, if one were to look at the Islamic world, Iran’s support for Turkey is important because Turkey has been trying to emerge as the leader of a certain group of Muslim countries consisting of Malaysia, Iran, Pakistan and Qatar among others. Last year a summit was held in Kuala Lumpur which was attended by leaders of Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Qatar and Iran. Pakistan could not attend due to pressure from Saudi Arabia. While hinting at the OIC, Erdogan said in the summit: “We still haven’t made any progress regarding the Palestinian cause, we still can’t stop the exploitation of our resources, we still can’t say ‘stop’ to the fragmentation of the Muslim world over sectarianism, that’s why.”

More recently, after the beheading of a French teacher, Erdogan was quick to criticize Macron for his approach towards Islam. Macron has also been accusing Erdogan of being responsible for the conflict  between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkey lent military support to Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – an Armenian majority enclave.

U.S. President-elect Biden has been critical of Erdogan in the past, and the sanctions against Turkey are unlikely to be removed, even after Joe Biden takes over. It has been argued that ties between both countries will be impacted as a result of the recent decision by the Trump administration. At the same time, statements made by senior officials of the outgoing Trump administration as well as the telephonic conversation between Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu indicate that Washington would like to prevent a further downward slope in bilateral ties with Istanbul.

If one were to look beyond the bilateral relationship, it remains to be seen whether the recent decision will push Turkey closer to Russia and China and if it will strengthen an alternative grouping to OIC — consisting of Turkey, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia and Qatar.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.