Turkey has come back from the cold with NATO and F-16 moves, but thorny issues remain

Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan addresses reporters during the final national press conference during the NATO High Level Summit at the Litexpo Convention Center in Vilnius, Lithuania on July 12, 2023.

Dominika Zarzycka Nurphoto | Getty Images

THE Turkey spent nearly two years—along with Hungary—blocking Sweden’s NATO membership.

He bought powerful Russian weapons systems and its outspoken President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly criticizes the leaders of Western allies. Relations between Turkey and the West are strained to say the least.

But with the decision to allow Sweden to join NATO at the end of January – a move that required unanimous approval from all 31 members of the alliance – it is as if a change has been made.

Within a few hours of Ankara’s decision, the US approves $23 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey that had been delayed since 2021. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland said Turkey would immediately begin receiving modernization kits for its F-16s and that Washington would be “delighted” to welcome Turkey back into the F -35 for NATO’s most advanced fighter aircraft, once the allies resolved the issue of Turkey’s purchases of Russian weapons systems.

It is worth noting that Hungary has not yet approved Sweden’s accession to NATO and remains the only alliance member blocking the Nordic country’s accession.

“No country in the Western orbit has taken so many problematic steps only to be welcomed back with open arms,” ​​wrote David Lepeska, Turkey and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for the UAE newspaper. The National.

Turkey is seemingly in a unique position that allows it to push boundaries and cross lines with its NATO allies. And it is also being welcomed back with open arms after just one change of position, despite calls for stricter accountability from some US lawmakers.

“My approval of Turkey’s request to purchase F-16 aircraft is contingent on Turkey’s approval of Sweden joining NATO. But make no mistake: this was not a decision I made lightly,” Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said in a statement.

A general view of the General Assembly of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) during the debate on the bill to approve the ratification of the protocol for the accession of Sweden to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Ankara, Turkey on January 23, 2024. (Photo (Metin Aktas/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Metin Aktas | Anadolu | Getty Images

Senator Chris Van Hollen said he welcomed Turkey’s ratificationbut he added: “I continue to have serious concerns about President Erdogan’s continued attacks against our Syrian Kurdish allies, his aggressive actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the role he has played in supporting Azerbaijan’s military offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh… It is clear that he needs to keep a close eye on Turkey in the coming weeks and months – actions speak louder than words.”

A critical strategic ally

The more a country needs from its allies and partners at the strategic or economic level, the more it can get away with, geopolitical analysts point out.

Turkey has the second largest military in NATO after the US, its Incirlik Air Base is a hub for Western sorties in the Middle East, such as fighter jet flights over Syria and Iraq during the campaign against Islamic State State, and even hosts about 50 American nuclear warheads.

“Historically, Turkey has been a critical member of NATO given its geostrategic position spanning Europe and Asia and controlling access to the Black Sea,” Hakan Akbas, senior adviser at Albright Stonebridge Group, told CNBC.

The country controls the Bosporus Straits, a critical sea route for global food and agricultural trade and military logistics. It is also “an essential partner in various military operations and missions operating side-by-side with the US,” most recently in Afghanistan, Akbas said.

But Turkey’s strategic value to NATO goes beyond its military role. “It acts as a key player in regional security, bordering Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and as a transit country for energy pipelines critical to global markets,” Akbas added. “This position gives Ankara significant leverage in its dealings with other NATO members, allowing it greater leeway than smaller or less strategic members might have.”

The Turkish government’s friendly relationship with Russia is worrying many NATO members. but at the same time it enables it to do things like broker the Black Sea grain deal and prisoner swaps between Ukraine and Russia.

Washington’s decision to move quickly with the F-16 sale to Turkey “can be seen as a goodwill gesture from the US and recognition of Turkey’s critical role within the alliance,” Akbas said, “keeping it closer to of Russia, balancing its security needs with broader concerns for regional stability.”

“It underlines the robust and yet adaptive nature of NATO-Turkey relations,” he added, “where strategic imperatives often lead to potential compromises and concessions from all parties involved.”

The remaining tensions

Turkey and its NATO allies, particularly the US, continue to clash over a number of sensitive areas.

Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system poses a security risk to NATO defense systems, Washington says — so much so that the market in 2019 resulted in Turkey being excluded from NATO’s F-35 program, which would have seen it participate in the construction and acquisition of the advanced stealth aircraft.

Meanwhile, Ankara openly condemns US support for Kurdish militias in Syria which it sees as part of a Kurdish terrorist group that threatens Turkey. Its military campaigns against these groups in Syria have even led to sporadic indirect clashes with US forces in the region.

Turkey remains NATO ally despite S-400 supply, Stoltenberg says

Turkish Erdogan has it too expressed vocal support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and provides a safe harbor for some of its leaders labeled terrorists by the US Meanwhile, Turkey’s unilateral actions over maritime disputes with fellow NATO members Greece and Cyprus have also drawn criticism from the alliance.

“Any of these issues could quickly escalate, depending on domestic political or economic developments in Turkey, changes in the regional security landscape, or changes in US and NATO policies,” Akbas said.

“The dynamic nature of geopolitics in the regions means that while some disputes may be temporarily resolved or de-escalated, they can re-emerge as significant challenges to alliance cohesion and cooperation.”

Read the original at Defence247.gr

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