ANKARA, Turkey, and WASHINGTON — As the US continues to modify its strategy for Syria, Turkish officials are raising concerns that Washington is moving too slowly to provide its ally with needed military goods.
Turkish officials are bristling at what they see as delays in the delivery of weapons and ammo that are needed to fight Kurdish militant groups, with several large orders stuck pending in the system.
Among the orders that are held up is a major deal from February 2014 between Sikorsky and the Turkish government for the co-production of 109 utility helicopters. Another is a Turkish request to transfer three Oliver Hazard Perry frigates, two of them floatable and one for spare use, along with a military trailer, to the Turkish military.
An official from a state-controlled Turkish defense company said that other US-made equipment and systems Turkey has asked the US to ship include unmanned combat aerial vehicles UAVs, smart military supplies, frigates and military trailers.
"Turkey has been requesting armed drones over the past seven years and only at the beginning of the year signs of a positive response started to emerge," he said. "But those systems remain undelivered or approved."
The question facing Turkish officials: Are the goods being held up due to the complicated regional politics, or are they simply caught in the bureaucracy inherent in the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system?
One Turkish government official said that the delays stemmed from US bureaucracy rather than a major dispute between allies.
"It is true that we have in the last few years placed requests for the delivery of certain systems and equipment," he said. "Sometimes such delays are normal." He would not comment further.
But another senior procurement official could not deny or confirm any US decision to hold shipments, citing the "political nature of the matter."
Politics certainly play a role in any FMS decision, and the complicated web between Turkey, Syria and Kuridish forces fighting along the border of both countries has not helped. While Turkey views groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as terrorists and has launched a series of attacks on them, some in Washington view the Kurds — of which there are several factions in Syria — as the best hope for defeating the militant Islamic State group within Syria and Iraq.
Those politics come to play in Congress, where there are indications some members have held up arms sales to Turkey for political reasons.
"Turkey is having a really hard time on the Hill. I call it an image problem. Its image as a democratic ally often comes under scrutiny," said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Turkish Research Program.
But, he warned, "I think Turkey has an even more profound problem with the DoD across the river."
A series of rough interactions since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, has shredded the 60-year relationship between the Pentagon and the Turkish military, Cagaptay said.
"While there is cooperation flourishing versus ISIS, it's not what it used to be," he said. "There was always a deep, profound fondness felt by the US military toward Turkey. That's gone, and I don't know that will come back so long as AKP [the ruling Justice and Development Party] is the government in Turkey."
The most recent example of how politics can interfere with Turkey’s weapons procurements was a $70 million sale of Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) kits to Turkey, cleared by the State Department on Oct. 29. That clearance, which had been was on hold for over more than 570 days, paves the way for Turkey to replenish its weapon stocks in its ongoing strikes against the PKK.
A Turkish defense official admitted that Turkey's stocks of US-made smart ammunition has visibly diminished after serial airstrikes against Kurdish militant strongholds in northern Iraq since July 20, when the Kurds ended a 2013 cease-fire.
Asked about the approval, Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Defense News "there were a number of issues along the way" that needed to be dealt with before members of the committee were OK with the agreement.
"I think it was a factor," Corker said of the political situation surrounding Turkey, "and all along the way there were a series of issues that slowed it down."
Rachel Stohl of the Washington-based Stimson Center says concerns about the potential Turkey could use JDAMs against Kurdish forces likely played into the holdup on the weapons sale.
"The US has struggled with providing weapons to Turkey for decades because of their record of use against groups they call terrorists but that may provide strategic support for US interests," Stohl said. "In short, the sale includes a significant number of bombs that could be used to support an air campaign against ISIS, but may also raise concerns about other potential uses contrary to US interest."
Another issue, Corker indicated, is Turkey's dialogue about buying a Chinese missile defense system. The US and its European allies have raised concerns about Turkey going in that direction, as it would create interoperability issues with other NATO partners — and raise fears that a Chinese system, linked to a NATO system, could create back-end access for Beijing into Western systems.
"The fact that they were considering a Chinese system that was not interoperable with NATO kinds of systems and just the concern there," Corker after the JDAM deal was cleared. "There were multiple concerns along the way … I think it's a defensive system, and I know there were some concerns about that."
Cagaptay said the China missile defense system decision had "a huge" impact on Turkey's relationship with its Western partners in the last year.
"Turkey miscalculated NATO and US reaction to that decision," he noted.
Corker later noted that he had met with Turkey's ambassador before the JDAM deal moved, which he said "could have been" a factor in the deal being pushed through.
Joe Gould contributed to this report from Washington.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Burak Ege Bekdil is the Turkey correspondent for Defense News.