Turkish-US ties on collision course over F-35 jet issue
A framework agreement was reached between Turkish and U.S. diplomats in talks carried out in Ankara on May 25 on a roadmap to be followed for the security of the Syrian town of Manbij, currently held by the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), officials from both sides confirmed. The roadmap will become valid after being approved in Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s visit to the U.S., where he will meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 4.
According to information compiled by diplomatic sources, the roadmap suggests that Turkish and American soldiers will together monitor the evacuation of members of the YPG out of the town to the east bank of River Euphrates. The process is expected to be completed by the end of the year, if approved by the two ministers.
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), something acknowledged in American official documents and Congress testimonies. The PKK has been fighting against Turkey for more than three decades and is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. However, successive American presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have dismissed Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s objections to the U.S.’s continued cooperation with the YPG.
The U.S. and Turkey had agreed that the YPG would not cross to the west of the Euphrates due to Turkey’s security concerns. The YPG had controlled areas in the west of the river, namely the Afrin district, which was pushed back by the Turkish forces in the military operation “Olive Branch” between January and April 2018 in cooperation with Russia. The Americans had promised before that they would withdraw the YPG from Manbij, and that’s why the meeting of the two foreign ministers might breathe a sigh of relief in the strained relations between the two allies.
But a day before the diplomatic talks in Ankara, there is another source of strain looming over.
On May 24 a U.S. Senate committee passed an amendment to remove Turkey from the production of the new generation F-35 fighter jet program over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, for whom an İzmir court has sought 35 years in jail due to suspicion of espionage and allegations of helping a terrorist organization. It is the illegal network of the Pennsylvania-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, or the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) as the indictment calls it, which Brunson is allegedly helping. Gülen is accused of masterminding the 2016 military coup attempt. Turkey has been demanding the extradition of Gülen or at least a legal action against him with the files it submitted to U.S. authorities. The case became another major problem between the countries.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy has said the F-35 was “not a program managed solely by the U.S., and Turkey has fulfilled its obligations and the measure would be ‘against the spirit’ of the Turkish-U.S. alliance.” Aksoy added that Turkey would respond if the amendment passed.
Back in 1975, when the U.S. imposed an arms embargo against Turkey, Ankara had closed the use of its strategic İncirlik air base to American flights. It continued for more than two years.
By linking the F-35 program to the Brunson case, which is linked to the Gülen case, the two senators’ (Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Thom Tillis) bipartisan initiative has complicated the situation further.
But there is more: The senators were also motivated by Turkey’s decision to buy Russian S-400 missiles. “Transferring sensitive F-35 technology to a nation that has purchased a Russian air defense system designed to shoot these very planes down” should be barred, Shaheens’ office reportedly told the press. Erdoğan had said earlier that if Turkey was not turned down by the American administration to buy Patriot missiles for its defense, there would be have been no need to go to the Russians.
So now almost all existing problems between Turkey and the U.S. have been tied to each other with the F-35 initiative in the Senate: The Syrian situation with Russia’s involvement, the YPG/PKK case, the Gülen case, the Brunson case, and another arms sales ban on Turkey after more than four decades.
The F-35 case can turn into a real collision course for Turkish-U.S. ties, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is probably very pleased watching everything that has been happening.