Areas of disagreement between the US administration and the Turkish regime have increased over the recent period, including mounting US pressure on the Turkish Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) that Ankara seeks to use abroad more widely to enhance the country’s mental image and net a good economic return, especially given the success of Turkish drones in conflict areas such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya. In this framework, on December 27, 2021, the Biden administration signed a defense bill allowing the US government to track and evaluate the US national security implications posed by Turkey’s expanding unmanned drone program. Moreover, the law allows the US State Department and the Pentagon to report on exports of Turkish unmanned drones since 2018, and whether they contain parts or technology manufactured by American companies. This measure supplements US sanctions on the Turkish defense industries sector, but this is the first time the drone industry has been targeted, which suggests that Washington is seeking to further block the Turkish military sector in the next phase.
In the past, numerous US congressmen have called for the US administration to intervene to monitor and clamp down on Turkey’s military programs, especially drones. Last August, 27 members of Congress expressed their concerns over the Turkish drone program, asking Secretary of State Antony Blinken to suspend military export licenses to Turkey pending confirmation that the Turkish drone program is free of any US technology. In parallel, last November, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, introduced a bill to closely monitor the Turkish armed drone program.
US measures to block the Turkish defense sector were not limited to the above. In December 2020, former US President Trump imposed sanctions on the SSB amid congressional consensus, pursuant to Article 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA. The sanctions were prompted by Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S400 missile defense system, and they contained a ban on granting US export licenses and authorizations to the SSB, as well as a freeze on the assets of its director and three other associated individuals.
Biden’s decision to monitor Turkish exports of drones comes amid mounting differences between the two countries. The most recent dispute was at the end of last October, when Washington refused to respond to Turkey’s request for 40 F-16 fighter jets and help in updating nearly 80 of these aircraft, of which the Turkish army owns more than 200. It can be said that the Biden administration chose the timing of the clamp-down on Turkish drones for the following key considerations:
1. Increasing involvement of Turkish drones in conflict hotspots: The Biden administration’s decision vis-à-vis blocking Turkish exports of drones is inseparable from Ankara’s escalating involvement over the past period in various regional issues—primarily political conflicts—via providing military supplies, particularly drones, to certain parties. This was evident in Turkey’s support for the Libyan Government of National Accord in 2019 during its confrontations with the forces of Eastern Libya and for the Azerbaijani government in 2020 against Armenia, and, finally, its provision of a batch of drones to the Addis Ababa government last November to end its war against the Tigray forces.
According to many, the successes of Turkish drones have changed the map of conflicts in the Middle East, as well as geopolitical aspirations in the South and Central Asia region. Likewise, Ankara’s confidence in its dealings with US allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, i.e., Cyprus and Greece, has increased vis-à-vis regional disputes over energy deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. Hence, Washington’s concern is understandable, especially since these successes have provided a fertile environment to free Turkey from the regulatory restrictions imposed by the US regarding the acquisition of American drones, not to mention the fact that Ankara continues to adopt an open-door policy of selling to any country with the money to buy Turkish drones. Moreover, the pace of American concerns increased after the Turkish president confirmed in early 2021 that his country had received requests from European countries to purchase Turkish drones.
2. Redoubled pressure on SSB: President Biden’s passage of a bill to monitor, track, and evaluate the potential effects of the Turkish drone program on US national security coincided with an announcement from Ismail Demir, the president of the SSB, on December 25, 2021, that the Turkish air defense system, Hisar, had completed all its tests successfully and was ready for service. The system can destroy war planes, drones, helicopters, and ballistic missiles and will be used to protect strategic Turkish facilities. In this context, by moving toward monitoring Turkish drones, the Biden administration may have sought to weaken the Turkish defense industries sector and intensify pressure on it, which was reflected in the request of the bill signed by Biden on December 27, 2021, from the State Department to determine whether Turkish exports constitute a violation of the Arms Export Control Act.
It is likely that the recent bill signed by Biden was not the first of its type in the context of blocking the SBB. On December 15, 2021, the US administration enacted a series of restrictions on companies in Turkey, with the US Department of Commerce blacklisting some companies in Turkey, Georgia, and Malaysia for allegedly furnishing or attempting to furnish products of US origin to provide financial support to the Iranian Defense Industries Organization. In a statement, the department said that these actions violate US export control regulations.
3. Gaining influence in areas of contention: President Joe Biden’ssigning of the bill to monitor and track Turkish drone exports highlights the ongoing contentions and widening tensions between the two countries. Neither the direct talks between Erdogan and Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels last May, nor their meeting last October on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome, succeeded in achieving a major breakthrough in relations.
At the forefront of the major contentions between Ankara and Washington is Washington’s continued opposition to Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S400 missile system, as well as its repeated refusal of Turkey’s demand to extradite Fethullah Gülen, whom President Erdogan has accused of orchestrating the failed coup in the summer of 2016. Likewise, a tense climate continues between the two countries because of Turkey’s rejection of US support for the Syrian Kurds, particularly the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara classifies as terrorist and considers an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The tension also reached a peak after Washington let down the Turkish president by aligning itself with Cyprus and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean crisis.
4. Attempt to provide moral support to the Turkish opposition: Washington’s efforts to block the Turkish drone sector, which has had huge success in a wide number of regional conflicts, cannot be separated from the mounting state of tension inside Turkey due to the erosion of the exchange rate of the Turkish lira and declining economic indicators, not to mention the political pressure exerted by the opposition on the Turkish president to hold early elections. Hence, it can be said that the US may attempt to influence the current political landscape in Turkey and send a message to the domestic Turkish opposition to the effect that Turkey may see greater tension in its foreign relations, especially with Washington, because of the policies of the Turkish president, and that Washington may be more open to Erdogan’s foes, especially since Biden had previously denounced the authoritarian practices of President Erdogan inside Turkey and criticized his efforts to nationalize the public sphere and restrict freedoms. In an interview with the US newspaper, The New York Times, in December 2019, Biden affirmed the need to support the Turkish opposition in order to overthrow Erdogan, whom he described as an “autocrat.”
On the whole, it can be said that President Biden’s signing of the bill to monitor and track Turkey’s drone exports may pose an additional challenge to the contentious track of relations between the two countries, although Turkey’s pragmatism may compel it to adopt a flexible political approach to contain such repercussions and impose limits on the tension with Washington given the complex and interrelated interests. This was reflected in the statements of Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Qalan, who noted on December 30, 2021, that his country sent a message to Washington regarding establishing and operating a mechanism for addressing divisive issues in the relationship between the two countries. Qalan stressed that the relationship between the two countries is deeply rooted and has a long history and the two are NATO allies.