It has now been almost five years since the United States officially kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program. The Pentagon’s move followed Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to purchase Russian anti-aircraft missiles advanced enough to expose NATO tactics and put American assets at risk.
As a consolation prize, the Biden administration offered Turkey [Türkiye] new F-16s and upgrade packages for Turkey’s existing fleet. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan appeared to tie new F-16s for Turkey to Erdogan agreeing to lift his de facto veto on Sweden’s NATO accession.
Such a trade was always unwise given how an erratic Turkey with advanced weaponry offset any gains to NATO of Sweden’s accession. Erdogan’s repeated threats to Greece, claims upon Greek territory, and overflights by drone and F-16 of Greek islands raise the prospect of an intra-NATO conflict. While Sweden’s accession might be symbolically important to NATO, it adds little that NATO members cannot achieve by cooperating with Sweden outside the alliance framework.
Erdogan’s behavior during the past month’s Gaza crisis should end any discussion of an F-16 sale. Speaking at a rally on October 28, the Turkish president not only declared that Hamas was not a terrorist group but warned that Turkey might launch a war against Israel on Hamas’ behalf.
“We are such a great nation and state that our strength, our problem, our struggle is not only limited to our borders,” he explained. “From now on, we will continue on our path with the motto that we may suddenly knock on your door one night.” It was neither a misstatement nor a sentiment he wished to walk back. Three days later, he declared, “The Israeli administration backed with unconditional support by Europe and America, has been committing crimes against humanity in front of the entire world for exactly 25 days.”
Turkey Bucks NATO Normalcy
On paper, Turkey might have the second-largest army in NATO. In reality, this is a meaningless metric. Turkey is a liability to NATO, not an asset. By aligning itself with Iran, Hezbollah, and Yemen’s Houthis, Turkey should disqualify itself from any future purchases of any U.S. weaponry. Given Turkey’s efforts to reverse engineer American military platforms for its indigenous industry, such a policy would be wise for intellectual property and counter-proliferation reasons as much as Turkey’s stance.
Perhaps the United States should take a page from the Cyprus playbook. In 1987, the Reagan administration imposed an arms embargo on Cyprus, in theory, to prevent an arms race between Cyprus proper and Turkey’s occupation zone. In recent years, the United States has eased that unilateral embargo but the State Department and Pentagon have largely limited exports to non-lethal goods and perhaps, in coming years, rifles.
After Erdogan’s outburst the White House, Pentagon, and State Department should not only publicly take F-16s off the table for Erdogan’s Turkey, but also announce that until further notice, any U.S. assistance to Turkey will be limited to non-lethal goods, like blankets or perhaps medical kits. Turkey may complain, but non-lethal goods will not contribute to widening war in the Eastern Mediterranean, a goal that by Erdogan’s own admission could come at any time.
The weaponry and other goods previously pledged to Turkey can be redirected to more deserving clients: Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, or even the Syrian Democratic Forces who remain the first line of defense against the reemergence of the Islamic State.
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005). He writes opinion pieces for this publication.