For decades, the United States has considered Turkey to be a key ally—a nation that straddles East and West in a volatile part of the world. Yet in recent years, this alliance has begun to strain as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has eroded democratic policies and processes in his country, straining relationships with America, Europe and one of its neighbors, Israel.

Highlighting the deterioration has been the recent action in Washington to block the sale of the advanced next generation F-35 joint strike fighter jets. It’s a significant move—one that could permanently alter the relationship between NATO allies and push Turkey closer to Russia.

The Senate Armed Service Committee passed its version of the $716 billion National Defense Authorization Act last week with language that directs the Pentagon to submit a plan to remove Turkey from the F-35 program. Similarly, the House passed its version of the bill earlier with similar language.

“Both the United States Senate and the House had the good wisdom to cancel the proposed sale of 100 of the highly sophisticated and powerful F-35 stealth jet fighters to Turkey,” Sarah Stern, founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, told JNS.

Stern, whose organization has been working with officials on Capitol Hill the past several months on the issue, said Turkey can no longer be considered a reliable ally.

“Turkey under Erdoğan is not the same secular, democratic Turkey it had been in the past,” she said. “Erdoğan has called for a Muslim army to invade Palestine and has compared Israelis to Nazis.”

“We are delighted that our elected representatives in both chambers have chosen the path of what is moral and what is right for the United States and our one democratic ally in the Middle East, Israel.”

The move to block Turkey from acquiring the F-35 began in late April, when Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) introduced a bill to block the transfer.

“President Erdoğan has continued down a path of reckless governance and disregard for the rule of law,” Lankford said in a statement at the time. “Individual freedoms have been increasingly diminished as Erdoğan consolidates power for himself, and Turkey’s strategic decisions regrettably fall more and more out of line with, and at times in contrast to, U.S. interests.”

In the House, the effort to block the sale to Turkey was led by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who had introduced the bipartisan “Ban F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Sales to Turkey Act” on May 17.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to Turkey’s thuggish, reprehensible behavior,” said Cicilline, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Banning the sale of these state-of-the-art weapons to Turkey is just common sense. It’s important that we hold NATO members to the same standard we would hold any other country.”

Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that the latest threats over blocking the sale of the F-35 highlights how low ties between the United States and Turkey have become.

“U.S.-Turkish relations have reached a low point in the aftermath of Turkey’s 2016 abortive coup. Turkish officials and pro-government media continue to fuel anti-Americanism, going as far to threaten hitting U.S. forces in Syria,” he said.

Further exacerbating tensions between the two NATO allies has been the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, an evangelical Christian pastor whose arrest in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt has become a key issue for many in Congress.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with U.S. President Donald Trump at the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2017. Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

In late April, a bipartisan group of 66 senators—led by Tillis and Shaheen—sent a letter to the Turkish leader demanding the release of Brunson.

“Erdoğan’s tactic of using Pastor Andrew Brunson and other imprisoned U.S. citizens as bargaining chips has triggered calls for sanctions in Washington,” stated Erdemir. “Congress has suggested a wide range of pushback strategies, including Global Magnitsky designations, visa restrictions and blocking the sale of F-35s. Although it is not yet certain which of these measures can materialize, there seems to be a growing reaction in Washington to Erdoğan’s policies.”

U.S. officials are also concerned about Turkey’s decision to purchase S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia. Officials worry that if the F-35 and S-400 are both being operated by Turkey, then the Russians would be able to gauge their system’s performance against the F-35, which was designed to evade Russian defense systems.

“Pragmatism and transactionalism characterize the U.S. government’s position toward Ankara” said Erdemir. “On the one hand, there is awareness of the growing public demand for pushing back against Erdoğan’s hostile moves. On the other hand, there is reluctance as U.S. officials fear that sanctions could lead to Ankara’s further drift from the transatlantic alliance toward Moscow.”

Lockheed Martin, Turkey and F-35s

From its inception in the 1990s, the F-35 was touted as a next-generation fighter plane for the 21st century that would replace the workhorse F-16, F-15 and other older fighter aircraft.

As such, the cost of developing the fighter aircraft to meet the needs of modern warfare would be astronomical, ranging in the hundreds of billions of dollars, which lead to an unprecedented cost-sharing program with key allies of the United States to share the financial burden. Among the initial allies investing in the cost of the F-35 included the United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Turkey, with Israel and Singapore later signing on to purchase the aircraft, and many other countries interested in purchasing in the future.

For the United States and Lockheed Martin—one of the largest defense contractors in the country—the huge international interest in the F-35 could make the fighter jet one of America’s biggest exports in the coming decades and crucial to driving down trade imbalances.

Given the enormous export value, Stern said that canceling the order of a 100 or so F-35s, valued at around $100 million per jet, would make a huge impact for the American defense industry.

“We are aware that this was a highly controversial issue, and that for many members there are huge factors because Lockheed Martin is a large defense manufacturer that employs many Americans in multiple states throughout the country,” said Stern.

Speaking recently at the International Air Force Commanders Conference in Tel Aviv, Rick Edwards, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin International, called the deliveries to Turkey “an evolving situation.”

“Turkey is one of the original partners,” he said. “It invested in the project for a long time.”

He acknowledged multiple discussions in Congress about the situation in Turkey, saying “our contract says build planes, and these are for Turkey. That’s what we’ll do, and we’ll see how the situation plays out between the politicians.”

Turkey and Israel

For Israelis, the concerns associated with Turkey acquiring the F-35 run into the heart of its long-held doctrine of “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East. While both countries are technically allies, the last several years have seen a difficult relationship since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, with Erdoğan frequently lashing out at the Jewish state over its policies regarding the Palestinians.

This behavior was on full display earlier in May when Erdoğan accused Israel of carrying out a “genocide” in Gaza following the deaths of several dozen protestors—most of them Hamas members—and engaged in a Twitter war with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There is no difference at all between the persecution inflicted on the Jews in Europe 75 years ago and the brutality faced by our brothers in Gaza,” Erdoğan said at the time.

Behind the scenes, Israeli officials have purportedly lobbied the United States to deny Turkey critical software upgrades on the F-35s.

“My concern is: They’re a NATO ally, they have been a good partner for years, but if we don’t know what the country is going to be like in a few years, we should withhold this resource from them,” Lankford told Haaretz last week.

The senator added: “When we give them [Israel] the F-35 or other military equipment, we know how they will use it. We know what they will and won’t do. I’m not sure we can say the same about Turkey.”

With the situation continuing to play out in Washington, Erdemir urged lawmakers to hold off on any drastic measures concerning Turkey until after elections this summer.

“As a Turkish columnist recently argued, a ban on the sale of F-35s could create a rally ‘round the flag effect in Turkey in the run-up to the country’s June 24 snap elections,” he said. “This could offer Erdoğan a lifeline, whose economic and political mismanagement has significantly undermined his support base. Ironically, a U.S. measure designed to push back against Erdoğan could end up resuscitating his lethargic campaign.”

Therefore, it would work in America’s interest to wait until after the results of the second round of elections in early July, which could see Erdoğan’s power diminish, before formulating any long-term policy for Turkey.

Said Erdemir: “A Turkey where Erdoğan, and his Justice and Development Party, is no longer in power could gradually rebuild trust with the transatlantic alliance, thereby avoiding the current crash course.”