Turkey slams US defense bill as sanctions loom

The US Senate passed a defense bill with several measures deemed hostile by Ankara officials, signaling Capitol Hill’s intent to move forward with sanctions on Turkey.

al-monitor Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to media next to Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after the Global Refugee Forum at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Dec. 17, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.
Diego Cupolo

Diego Cupolo


Topics covered


Dec 18, 2019

As lawmakers in Washington debate the impeachment of President Donald Trump, officials in Ankara are weighing how the latest US defense bill will impact Turkey.

In an 86-8 vote, the Senate passed the $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Tuesday, sending the legislation to the president, who has expressed support for the bill and is expected to sign it into law.

While the Trump’s fate remains to be determined, political analysts say the NDAA signals bipartisan congressional support for sanctions on Ankara with few signs Capitol Hill will change course in punishing Turkey for its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems, among other points of discord between the longtime NATO allies.

By passing the defense plan, US lawmakers are “foreshadowing what will come, and they demonstrate the strength of the anti-Turkey sentiment in the US Congress,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, told Al-Monitor.

He added, “I think that in a few weeks, Turkey will be facing real sanctions.”

Measures in the NDAA block the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, setting up a framework to store and possibly repurpose the warplanes for use in the US Air Force. The move comes in response to Ankara’s purchase of Russian missiles earlier this year, which employ radar systems US officials claim pose a security threat to NATO’s next-generation fighter jet.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said the NDAA “demonstrates that the Congress persists in disrespecting Turkey’s sovereign decisions and in adopting an irrational hostile attitude by unfairly blocking our participation to the F-35 program despite Turkey having fulfilled all its obligations.”

On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to close two military bases used by US forces — Incirlik and Kurecik — if Turkey were to be subjected to US sanctions, saying he would respond “in the framework of reciprocity.” The Turkish lira slid against the US dollar to its weakest level in two months amid the ongoing tensions.

Legislation blocking the F-35 transfer to Turkey was included in the NDAA partly due to Trump’s refusal to impose sanctions outlined by the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) as required by US law, said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Trump’s inaction regarding Turkey’s S-400 purchase, which is widely attributed to good personal relations between the two leaders, has also led Washington lawmakers to introduce various Turkey sanctions bills. On Dec. 11, a US Senate committee passed separate legislation sanctioning Turkey, which was sponsored by Sens. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and currently awaits a full Senate vote.

“There is a quiet effort amongst the leadership to get Trump to just impose CAATSA,” Stein told Al-Monitor. “Then stuff like [the Risch-Menendez bill] would go away. It would never be brought to the floor. But Trump doesn’t impose CAATSA.”

He added, “People want Trump to impose CAATSA because it’s less severe than Risch-Menedez.”

The Risch-Menendez bill, formally known as the Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act of 2019, also calls for imposing CAATSA penalties, but within a 30-day timeframe of its passage. It also adds measures such as a partial arms embargo on Turkey, sanctions on high-ranking Ankara officials and required reporting on the net worth of Erdogan and his family.

Though the NDAA states CAATSA sanctions “should” be imposed on Turkey, no time frame is given. Still, the main takeaway is the defense bill confirms Turkey’s exclusion from the F-35 program, which could lay the groundwork for a string of repercussions, said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies.

“This will rekindle the debates within Turkey for finding an alternative to the F-35,” Ulgen told Al-Monitor. “And especially when coupled with additional sanctions, which are now very likely to come from Congress and CAATSA, this will further pressure Turkish authorities to formally negotiate the purchase of the Su-35 from Russia, which in itself could lead to yet another wave of sanctions.”

In recent months, Ankara officials have suggested they might seek out Russian-made Su-35 fighter jets to upgrade an aging fleet of warplanes currently used by the Turkish air force.

In addition, the NDAA includes legislation to lift a decades-old US arms embargo on the Republic of Cyprus. Though the Turkish Foreign Ministry claimed the move might create “a dangerous escalation” on the divided island, analysts said it was a symbolic affirmation of US support for the republic’s alignment with Greece, Israel and Egypt, with which it is jointly developing offshore gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Stein said some officials might ascribe the lifting of the arms embargo to Turkey’s ongoing and unauthorized gas-drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, but “a lot of what’s wrapped in the Cyprus stuff is about Russia,” Stein told Al-Monitor. “It’s acknowledging that Cyprus is under Russian influence and beginning to make a play to try to undo it through [joint training exercises and defense spending].”

Turkish media, along with the Foreign Ministry, have also read NDAA legislation imposing sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — linking Russia and EU markets — as a potential precedent for future sanctions on Turkey, which is preparing to open the TurkStream gas pipeline with Russia in January. There was no evidence at the time of reporting that TurkStream would be subjected to penalties via the NDAA.

“The act is not clear,” Unluhisarcikli said regarding the pipeline measures, adding, “Turkey could make the valid argument that Turkey doesn’t have other options [for acquiring gas.]”

Trump is expected to sign the NDAA in the coming days, while the Risch-Menendez bill is unlikely to reach the Senate floor before the holiday break, according to Stein. In the meantime, Ankara officials have said they would continue with plans to activate purchased S-400 systems despite the looming threat of sanctions.

“Every signal we get from Ankara indicates that Turkey is fully intent on operationalizing the S-400,” Ulgen told Al-Monitor.

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