F35s: A tipping point in the US-Turkey relationship?

F35s: A tipping point in the US-Turkey relationship?

Three months ago, when the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) and the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) launched the #NoJetsForTurkey campaign (their joint initiative to halt F35 sales to Turkey), doubt was cast as to how effective this effort could be.

When we took out an ad in the New York Times on the effort while thousands of calls and emails flooded the United States Senate, people started to notice how serious the issue was.

As Congress heads into its Memorial Day recess, the fight against transferring F35s to Turkey has definitely been noticed. Let’s review what was achieved this past week:

The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted (351-66) to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with a provision to suspend F35 sales and all major defense equipment deliveries to Turkey until the Secretaries of State and Defense deliver a report on the status of the US – Turkey relationship to Congress.

The Senate version of the NDAA advanced out of the Senate Armed Services Committee to the full Senate. The Senate version included an amendment that would remove Turkey from the F35 program as long as it continued: (a) its purchase of the Russian S400 missile system and (b) its detention of Evangelical Christian pastor Andrew Brunson.

Some have speculated that these measures effectively freeze the F35 transfers. That is not true. There are still several steps that have to be taken.

To begin with, the full Senate has to pass its version of the NDAA. After that, because there are differences between what the House and Senate passed, the House and Senate will appoint conferees to work out a compromise. 

This committee is called a “conference” committee. When the conference committee reaches an agreement between the House and Senate versions, the bill goes back to the entire Congress for a vote. When a final bill is passed, it will be sent to President Trump for signature and then it becomes law.

What does this mean? To begin with, it is unlikely that the NDAA is signed into law prior to the scheduled June 21 transfer of ownership of the first 2 F35 jets to the Turkish Armed Forces.

It also means we cannot be sure which provision regarding the F35s the conference committee will decide to include in the final bill. Anyone making a bet that a permanent ban on F35s to Turkey is just around the corner is making a foolhardy bet.

This much is certain: the fight over F35s has illustrated that US-Turkey relations have crossed the Rubicon. Beyond the two measures that passed, a number of other amendments regarding the F35s and military aid to Turkey were introduced during the NDAA process. 

When Secretary Pompeo testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, seven different members of Congress addressed the issue of Turkey with the Secretary of State. 

Among the most notable comments: “Erdogan is becoming our enemy, he is not our friend”; “I find no favor with the Erdogan regime and it is a matter of when, not if, we have to change our strategy there”; “I hope Erdogan will also be so designated [as a Country of Particular Concern – the designation given to the worst religious rights violators in the world] for what he has done years to date against the Orthodox as well as so many others”; “I hope you consider not giving them F35s, it seems we give and give and give [to Turkey] and get slapped in the face”; “As to Turkey, I hope the Administration would prevent the sale of the F35s, they are not a weapon to be used against terrorists, they are a weapon to be used against Greece.”  

The Secretary of State himself expressed frustration with Turkey, declaring “we have a NATO ally that I’ll meet with their Foreign Minister early next week to try to plot a way forward together in Syria but that is proving incredibly difficult” while shaking his head.

We find ourselves at the beginning of a process rather than at the end of one. When it comes to the issue of the F35s, another Congressional effort is being launched to ask the Administration to halt the June 21 transfer of ownership of the first two jets to Turkey.

There are also stand-alone pieces of legislation in both the House and Senate dealing with the F35 sales. Since the transfer of F35s is scheduled to occur in phases, expect this issue to become a constant in American foreign policy debates.

Endy Zemenides is the Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.

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