Edward G. Stafford
Aug 07 2019

Recent moves by Trump, Netanyahu a foreshadowing of consequences facing Turkey

Much more complex than chess, playing at PSYOPS (Psychological Operations) to gain political or diplomatic advantage is not a game for amateurs.  If one had more faith in conspiracies then in serendipity, one might almost believe that U.S. President Donald Trump really is a master of PSYOPS.

Whether inadvertent, unconscious, pure coincidence, or only an after-thought, Israel’s recent use of one or more of its F35 fighters to attack Iranian targets in Iraq, coupled with sanctions against Iranian Foreign Minister  Mohammad Javad Zarif sends a message to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and others, about the probable near-term and medium-term consequences of thumbing his nose at the the United States and NATO.

Israel did not use its F35s to send a message to Erdoğan.  Nor did the Trump administration apply sanctions against Zarif for that reason. Netanyahu and Trump, respectively, had other motivations for pursuing these two separate courses of action.

That said, it serves Israeli security interests in multiple ways to leak reports of its successful attack on Iranian targets in Iraq.  Those ways go well beyond the destruction of military materiel likely destined for Hezbollah.  Israel served notice to the Iranians that it now has the most capable 5th generation combat aircraft for use in defending Israel, and the will to do so.

Other countries will take note. Those taking note are principally in the Middle East and include Turkey, which is both a European and a Middle Eastern country. 

It seems that only most recently has Erdoğan accepted the reality of the suspension of Turkey from the F35 programme, having stated publicly for so long that the United States would not do so, even in the face of strong indications the Trump administration would.  The recent return of Turkish pilots who were training on the F35s reinforces the assessment that Turkey will only return to the F35 programme once its removes the S400s specifically and embraces Atlantic Alliance solidarity more generally.  Thus, while his U.S. counterpart might be able to lessen the impact of sanctions against Turkey under CAATSA rules, delivery of the highly capable F35 to Turkey is now a distant dream, not a likely outcome. 

The Israelis and their supporters in Congress will support the suspension or expulsion of Turkey from the F35 programme, sustained in their opposition by Erdoğan’s continuing anti-Israeli rhetoric.  One imagines the Israelis, the Greeks, and other friends and allies of the United States are quite happy that Turkey will not have operational F35s this November as previously planned. One supposes the Turkish Air Force will be disappointed, but they are in no position to protest Erdoğan’s decision making.  Ironically, the Russians will be disappointed, too, as they’ve lost a great opportunity for military intelligence gathering as well as industrial espionage.

In the Zarif case, the Trump administration has sent a clear message that it will not hesitate to apply sanctions against very senior members of a foreign government regardless of the impact it has on discussions of important issues.  With Turkey, Trump demonstrated in the Pastor Andrew Brunson affair he was willing to impose sanctions on ministers of a NATO ally’s government.  Put together, one must consider it probable that Trump’s national security team will consider (or has already considered) imposing targeted sanctions on senior Turkish officials.  Doing so would somewhat satisfy the Congressmen and foreign policy pundits demanding that Trump sanction Turkey for its acquisition of the S400s.  It would also avoid punitive wholesale sanctions against Turkey that would not be in the U.S. interests.  Of course, it would be a bit of a fig leaf, because the decision to go forward with the S400s belongs to only one senior Turkish official, and Trump is not going to sanction Erdoğan, or even any of his closest advisors. 

Again, in planning their actions, neither Netanyahu nor Trump had sending a message to Erdoğan upper-most in their minds.  Regardless of that obvious fact, Israel’s use of its F35s and Trump’s imposition of sanctions against the foreign minister of a sovereign nation with whom the U.S. must engage on a matter of vital national security reveal possible consequences for Erdoğan’s Turkey.

In the near-term, targeted sanctions against some senior Turkish officials might increase the pain of cozying up to the Russians.  In both the near-term and the medium-term, Erdoğan's ongoing efforts to distance Turkey from NATO and the United States, confirmed by his acquisition of the S400s, will leave Turkey bereft of a proven highly capable 5th generation combat aircraft that others in the region have or will soon acquire and of the goodwill of treaty allies of almost 70 years.  Not Trump, but Putin is the master at playing PSYOPS. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.