The move by the U.S. Congress to deny secondhand warships to Turkey could portend an "arms embargo" from Washington, some military officials in Ankara are warning.
Last month, Congress approved the transfer of several naval frigates to Mexico and Taiwan, excluding Turkey -- which had been slated as one of the original recipients -- over concerns about its policies toward Israel and Cyrpus.
While the ships would have been of use to Turkey only as the source for spare parts, the move nevertheless has raised alarm in Ankara, according to Hurriyet Daily News.
“These are almost useless vessels of no strategic importance for the Turkish Navy,” one senior defense official in Ankara told the newspaper. “The Americans know that the ships would not be great naval assets for Turkey. We think the decision not to transfer the ships to Turkey may be reflecting the likelihood of a broader embargo in the future.”
Another official, also speaking anonymously, suggested that the reprisal could go the other way:
A defense procurement official in Ankara said any further U.S. move “that may look like an embargo due to political rifts” would trigger reaction and risk U.S. defense business in Turkey.
“The unfriendly U.S. move came at a time when our U.S. [and European] allies are trying to convince us that going for a Chinese solution in our air defense program is not a good idea. The timing of the frigate decision is puzzling. The Americans know very well which contracts potentially involving U.S. defense business in Turkey could be jeopardized and how much harm that may make to U.S. industry,” said the official.
While it's no doubt that Turkey is trying to diversify its weapons suppliers, and to decrease its Cold War legacy dependence on the U.S., the mutual dependence is too great for either side to seriously threaten the other, especially over such a minor issue. U.S. arms sales to Turkey totaled $3 billion in 2012 and $2.7 billion in 2013; the military relationship between the two sides is perhaps the strongest element in the bilateral relationship. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe this won't last forever. The U.S. Congressional Research Service wrote in August:
Turkey’s growing defense industry appears increasingly willing to engage in arms import-export transactions or joint military exercises with non-NATO countries, such as China, Russia, Pakistan, and South Korea. This suggests that Turkey is interested in maximizing its acquisition of technology, diversifying its defense relationships, and decreasing its dependence on the United States. It is unclear how Turkey’s procurement relationships with other countries might affect the availability of U.S. arms to Turkey.
And American analyst Steven Cook wrote in November about the deteriorating U.S.-Turkey relationship and evoked an earlier arms embargo:
Beyond the gauzy rhetoric of fighting and dying together in Korea and standing shoulder-to-shoulder to counter the Soviet threat, there was a war of words between President Lyndon Johnson and Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu over Cyprus, and then after the Turks invaded the island in 1974, Washington imposed an arms embargo on Ankara. In between and even in the years after the United States lifted the sanctions on Turkey, mistrust was a constant feature of the relationship. No doubt some Turkey watchers will claim that if bilateral ties survived the difficult period of the 1960s and 1970s, there is no reason to believe that relations will be permanently impaired now, but that is a lazy argument. The factors that drove the strategic relationship—the Soviet Union, Middle East peacemaking, Turkey’s EU project, and soft landings in the Arab world—no longer exist.
This matter of the leftover frigates may not be a big deal in and of itself, but it seems to be yet another erosion of trust between the two countries.