The US Senate voted 85-10 to restrict sales of the F-35 to Turkey on Monday. The bill, gaining steam since March, has major bi-partisan backing. “Turkey’s strategic decisions regrettably fall more and more out of line with, and at times in contrast to, US interests,” Senator James Lankford said in April.
Foremost among these strategic interests is Ankara’s cozying up to Russia and seeking to buy the S-400. But the larger regional picture is bigger than just a NATO power going arms shopping in Moscow. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces elections this month, has been seeking a détente with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and has been meeting frequently with him in the last year.
Turkey has expanded its operations in northern Syria, invading the province of Afrin in January with the claim that it was fighting the terrorism of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey has frequently condemned the United States for its role in eastern Syria where the US is partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces in the war against Islamic State.
Ankara sees the People’s Protection Units, a member of the SDF, as a part of the PKK. In January Turkey accused the US of “supporting terrorists” in Syria and its rhetoric against Washington has not been one of an ally, but more often of an opponent.
There are other problems as well. Last year Turkish security attending Erdogan’s visit to Washington fought with protesters. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce condemned the behavior.
Then there is the current relationship between Ankara, Doha and Tehran that has caused concern in Washington. Since the Gulf crises last year in which US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates broke relations with Doha, Turkey has been the main supporter of Qatar.
Saudi Arabia has been critical of Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey has been at odds with US allies. In addition Turkey recalled its ambassador from Washington over the US embassy move and has been hosting emergency sessions of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, condemning Israel and withdrawing its ambassador.
The F-35 sale is therefore symbolic of a much larger problem. “Good for US Senate. Only way to play ball with Erdogan is to play hardball. Turning over our most advanced fighter jet while he buys Russian S-400 takes country in an anti-US direction,” tweeted Foundation for Defense of Democracies Mark Dubowitz on Tuesday.