Thu, 06 Aug 2020

Turkish-US Fighter Jet Dispute Rekindles Century-Old Animosities

Voice of America
10 Dec 2019, 07:05 GMT+10

ISTANBUL - Turkey Defense Minister Hulusi Akar warned Washington on Monday that Turkey will seek alternatives if Washington doesn't end its embargo on the sale of the F-35 jet.

The impasse over the fighter jet, deemed key to Turkey's future defense, is rekindling memories of a similar century-old dispute.

Hoping that a "reasonable and sensible" way could be found to resolve Washington's freeze on the F-35 sales, Akar warned, "If this is not possible, everyone should know that we will naturally seek other quests."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has confirmed that Russia's Su-35 fighter is being considered as an alternative to America's latest stealth fighter jet if the embargo is not lifted.

President Donald Trump froze the jet sale after Ankara procured the Russian S-400 missile system. Washington claims the S-400's sophisticated radar compromises NATO defense systems - in particular, the stealth technology of its F-35 jet.

Ankara claims Washington is manufacturing the dispute.

"The U.S. criticized us. However, NATO did not say anything. On the contrary, NATO Secretary General (Jens Stoltenberg) repeatedly stated all countries have the right to buy the weapon and defense system they want," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Saturday.

1914 dispute

The increasingly acrimonious dispute is resurrecting memories of a century-old Turkish arms deal that also went sour. In 1914 on the eve of World War I, Britain seized two state-of-the-art dreadnought warships built by British builders for the then-Ottoman Empire.

The incident still resonates in Turkey.

"It continues to haunt not only the public and political mind, but the institutional mind, especially," said international relations professor Serhat Guvenc of Istanbul's Kadir Has University and author of "The Ottoman Quest for Dreadnoughts." "The navy has never forgotten this experience, and today, there are many similarities in several respects with the F-35 embargo.

"The two warships ... were fully paid for. But (Winston) Churchill (head of the British navy in 1914) was obsessed, convinced that the Ottomans were going to join the Germans. So, there was no point in releasing the two ships which may end up on the wrong side of the conflict," Guvenc said.

"Over a century ago, it was the fear of the Ottoman's joining the Germans," Guvenc added. "Today, the case with the F-35, Russia is the modern-day equivalent with Germany."

In 1914, after Britain's seizure of the Ottoman warships, Germany offered two ships of its own as replacements, a move that brought the Turks to Germany's side against Britain, France and Russia in World War I.

Former Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen acknowledges the 1914 incident still resonates in Turkish military thinking.

"Among commanders of today's Turkish navy, it is still a vivid memory and still today shapes the thinking of these naval planners."

Since 1914, Ankara has never procured a British naval vessel. Selcen says the latest arms disputes with Washington differs from the past.

"It's a public diplomacy stand (by Ankara). It's public propaganda to compare with the warships," Selcen said, "because it was kind of an own goal by Turkish foreign policy to get kicked out of the project. It was made clear by Washington: either the S-400 or F-35, not both."

Higher stakes

Analysts point out that the loss of the F-35 jets could be more far-reaching than the loss of two warships in 1914. Ankara has invested over a billion dollars into the jet project and ultimately was to take delivery of around 100 jets to replace the Turkish air force's aging fleet of F-16 aircraft.

Washington has also expelled Turkey from the international consortium building and servicing the advanced jet.

"When Turkey became a full-fledged partner in the F-35 program, the political implications would be that Turkey remains committed to the NATO alliance and staunch ally to the United States," Guvenc said. "In Washington, the idea is that Turkey is now moving irreversibly away from the western alliance and seeking new friends in Eurasia, basically Russia and China."

Moscow is lobbying Ankara hard to deepen and broaden Russian military purchases. Turkey is reportedly close to buying a second battery of S-400 missiles, a move analysts say is likely to anger Washington further.

Just as in 1914, Ankara could be facing a pivotal moment, Guvenc said.

"The similarities are very striking, because when the two German warships arrived in Istanbul in place of the two commandeered dreadnoughts, the British naval mission had to leave and was replaced by the German naval mission. And the German military naval influence in Turkey continued after World War I," he explained.

"So, we may see a rupture in the Turkish military strategy and its realignment around Russia-China - a hybrid military strategy but definitely moving away from the western alliance," Guvenc said.

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