Skepticism over the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to Turkey – a development which will upset the balance of power in the Aegean Sea – is growing among Washington officials.
In an interview with Kathimerini, Endy Zemenidis, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC), says that moves by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are causing disgruntlement among the US foreign policy establishment – an increasing number of officials describe Ankara as an unpredictable and unreliable ally – and speaks about the efforts made by the Greek-American lobby, together with their Armenian counterparts, to prevent potential upgrades to Turkey’s air force.
You have had an eventful week. Last week, HALC and the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) launched an effort to block F-35 sales to Turkey. As if you were predicting the events of the past few days, your campaign warns against Turkey using US weapons against allies and strategic partners. Was your timing coincidental?
Unfortunately, no. While we couldn’t predict Turkey’s exact actions, the developments this week could have been anticipated. US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt was being diplomatic when he declared he was worried about an “accident” in the Aegean. What everyone is honestly worried about is Turkey’s provocations crossing a line and requiring a response that leads to a military confrontation.
We have gone beyond the over-the-top rhetoric used by Turkey – which seems to want to compete with North Korea for most provocative declarations: Its actions in the Aegean, its formal actions in terms of navtexes (navigational text messages) and notams (notices to airmen), and its deploying naval forces against energy exploration in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) are inviting an escalation that might make the 1996 Imia crisis look tame.
These are not sudden developments. Turkey’s provocations occur consistently and steadily more dangerous. Allowing them to marry these provocations with the latest in American military technology is a recipe for disaster.
Do you really think the US would arm Turkey with the F-35s and alter the balance of power in the Aegean?
While the Aegean is not the prime concern in arms sales to Turkey, there will be those who seek rapprochement with Turkey and they will argue that selling the F-35s to Ankara is worth it if it restores the bilateral relationship. But there are an ever-decreasing number of people in the US foreign policy establishment that are willing to take such a risk on Turkey.
There will be very strong opposition in Congress – which already acted against small arms sales to Turkish security forces – and in which measures challenging the F-35 transfer have been circulated. Turkey’s critics are prominent, vocal and growing in numbers. Congressmen willing to defend Turkey are in pretty short supply nowadays. We expect stronger than ever Congressional opposition to arms sales to Turkey, and we also think the State Department has reached its wits end with regard to Turkey and may be both unwilling and unable to change minds on Capitol Hill.
What strategic considerations will those who challenge the F-35 sales emphasize?
Above all else, the fact that Turkey has been an unreliable ally will make any sober American think twice before transferring next-generation weaponry. Turkey was ambivalent in fighting ISIS, which forced the US to seek other allies. When the Kurds emerged as the most effective anti-ISIS allies, Turkey took military action against them. Right now, the US cannot ignore that its own weapons are being used by a nominal ally to undermine its strategic goals and interests.
Turkey’s planned S-400 purchase from Russia further complicates strategic considerations. If Turkey possesses both Russian S-400s and American F-35s, how do we know that they won’t share information with the Russians on how to use the S-400s effectively against F-35s?
Yet there is no question that American officials are taking notice of Turkey’s increasing provocations in the Aegean and against Cyprus. The last thing the US wants is an inter-NATO conflict, and even the prospect of an “accident” will lead them to reconsider the transfer of the F-35s.
What role are the Greek and Armenian lobbies playing in blocking the F-35 sales to Turkey?
As you noted, our advocacy action has been undertaken in conjunction with ANCA. This is not the first time we’ve worked with them on arms sales issues. In 2012 and into 2013, we worked with ANCA to successfully block the transfer of naval frigates to Turkey. Last year, we were successful again in advocating against the small arms sales.
Both HALC and ANCA have activated our networks of activists. Thousands of emails and phone calls have gone into Senate offices. Nearly every US senator has been contacted multiple times. Our staffs are working directly with members of Congress to make sure that the opposition to this is loud and clear.
The latest tensions in Cyprus come only a short time after President Nicos Anastasiades’s re-election and while his new cabinet was being formed. How does this affect the prospects of restarting the negotiations that ended at Crans-Montana?
Fortunately, the new Anastasiades cabinet incorporates familiar and fantastically capable people when it comes to the issue of the EEZ. The new foreign minister – Nikos Christodoulides – and the energy minister – Yiorgos Lakkotrypis – are both diplomatically adept and well regarded. They’ve dealt with provocations from Turkey before. This is at yet another level, but they can draw on both their experience and their relationships. I’m encouraged by the response of the European Union and the reaffirmation of the US’s support of Cyprus’s rights in its EEZ. I’m very disappointed by the UN spokesman’s meaningless response. If the UN secretary-general really wants “a normal country” to result from Cyprus negotiations, he has to take a clear stand on Turkish Cypriots constantly using Turkey as leverage. This type of blackmail makes it harder for President Anastasiades to return to negotiations and convince the people of Cyprus – 65 percent of which voted for pro-solution candidates – that Turkey and Turkish Cypriots are negotiating in good faith.
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On the Macedonia issue, how does the US see the prospects of an agreement, and what would it mean for Greece?
To understand which way the US may be leaning on this issue, we need to step back and take note of larger trends. The Balkans – especially the Western Balkans – are moving back up the US foreign policy agenda. They have become one of the arenas where the US-Russia competition is playing out.
Let’s also remember that it was a US diplomat – former deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia Hoyt Yee – that helped secure the mandate of Zoran Zaev’s government in Skopje. To say the US prefers to Zaev to Nikola Gruevski and is inclined to see a Zaev-led country as more on the side of the West than on Russia’s might be an understatement.
There are a lot of obstacles to integrating the Western Balkans – border disputes, what to do with both Kosovo and Serbia, instability in Bosnia. In some circles, reconciling Athens and Skopje seems like the easiest task in the Balkans.
If a deal can be reached, this can enhance Greece’s status as a diplomatic hub in the eyes of the US foreign policy establishment. Greece’s role in the trilateral summits in the Eastern Mediterranean/Middle East has been noted, and if it can increase its influence in the Balkans many in Washington would be happy. Turkey used to be a diplomatic hub, where Middle Eastern, Balkan and Western European countries came together. Just two weeks ago, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst openly mused about Greece playing that role since Turkey has antagonized too many countries to continue playing that role.