ANKARA, Turkey, and MOSCOW — A number of Turkey’s NATO allies have suspended arms sales to the country in condemnation of its military incursion into Syria, but analysts and officials are shrugging off the embargo, saying it will have a minimal impact on the military’s operational capabilities.
Several countries, including France, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Spain and Germany, imposed arms embargoes against the Turkish government after its troops entered Syria to attack the Kurdish militia, which Turkey views as a terrorist group. Turkey said its military operation, launched Oct. 9, will help create a safe zone in northeastern Syria.
The Trump administration announced its own sanctions against Turkey earlier this month over the offensive in Syria, though those sanctions included a Treasury Department waiver to allow foreign military sales to continue, according to a senior defense official. President Donald Trump also threatened via Twitter earlier this month that he would “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if Ankara took any action he considered “off-limits.” But the president said Oct. 23 that he plans to lift all sanctions leveled against Turkey for its recent military operations following reports of a fresh cease-fire agreement.
“Our arms imports from those countries are limited. None has monopoly on any system which we can easily procure from other suppliers,” a senior Turkish diplomat told Defense News. “Non-Western suppliers are keen to replace Western manufacturers.”
Turkey’s top procurement official, Ismail Demir, also downplayed the potential impact of the embargo. “None of that will affect us,” he said. “We have taken precautions regarding alternative sources as well as local production.”
The European Union joined scores of other countries to condemn the Turkish operation in Syria.
“The E.U. condemns Turkey’s military action, which seriously undermines the stability and the security of the whole region, resulting in more civilians suffering and further displacement and severely hindering access to humanitarian assistance," the organization said in a statement. “Turkey’s security concerns in northeast Syria should be addressed through political and diplomatic means, not with military action, and in accordance with international humanitarian law.”
A senior Turkish military official ruled out operational weaknesses in the Syria campaign resulting from the embargo. “The operation [into Syria] took off on assumption that it would be an open-ended campaign. Equipment and ammunition stocks would suffice for several months," the official explained.
Shortly after the Turkish military incursion, Washington brokered a cease-fire between Turkish troops and Kurdish fighters. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to resume the campaign if Kurds did not vacate northern Syria as agreed.
Turkey boasts that it locally produces most hardware and ammunition required for the campaign. Turkish officials claim local production currently meets 70 percent of the military’s requirements, compared with 20 percent 15 years ago.
Demir said most systems used in the operation including helicopters, smart ammunition, rockets, infantry rifles, armored vehicles and electronic warfare systems are supplied by the local industry. However, the Turkish military did experience a temporary shortage of ammunition, a Turkish security official told Defense News on the condition of anonymity. “Some ammunition stocks we normally bought from the West ran short but was quickly replaced by Russian supplies,” he said.
Alternative suppliers and ice cream
An Ankara-based defense analyst pointed to Ukraine, Belarus, Pakistan, South Korea and China as alternative sources for ammunition. “Especially China would volunteer to sell almost every weapons system,” he said.
It also wouldn’t be difficult to imagine Russia filling the void left by a lack of high-tech Western systems. After the U.S. suspended Turkey’s partnership in the multinational Joint Strike Fighter program in retaliation for Turkey’s $2.5 billion purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, Ankara turned to Moscow for a stopgap solution to bolster its fighter fleet.
Erdogan visited the MAKS air show in Russia this year with President Vladimir Putin. No deal was announced, but the two leaders ate ice cream together and Erdogan took a photo with Russia’s Su-57 stealth fighter.
“Possibly, they [the Turkish government] will make a choice in favor of our combat aviation, nothing can be ruled out,” Russia’s deputy premier, Yuri Borisov, said Oct. 20.
Meanwhile Turkey is trying to design and develop its first indigenous fighter jet. But officials privately admit the country will likely miss its original deadline of 2023 to fly the planned aircraft.
Moscow’s courting of Ankara is likely to increase following the latter’s spat with Washington over the fate of the Kurds in northern Syria, and few things are more attractive to the Kremlin right now than spoiling America’s relations with its NATO allies, according to Russian political analyst Vladimir Frolov.
“It makes sense to sell Erdogan just about anything he wants, so long as it further deepens the strains between Turkey and U.S. and NATO,” Frolov said, noting that nuclear weapons are off the table.
But recent developments in Syria add an element of complication to a potential Turkish shopping spree through Russia’s export catalog. The latest catalyst driving Russia’s opportunity — Turkey’s advance into northern Syria — is at odds with Russia’s own objectives, namely the restoration of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s control over the country.
Erdogan flew to the Russian resort town of Sochi on Oct. 22 to meet with Putin and discuss developments in Syria. Ahead of the meeting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov predicted “long and complicated” discussions, and he reiterated Russia’s position that only Russian troops — at Assad’s invitation — have any business operating within Syrian borders. However, Peskov said Russia could do nothing to prevent Turkish troops from entering and operating in Syria.
Western arms embargoes on Ankara is nothing new. In May 2018, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a $717 billion annual defense policy bill that included a measure to temporarily halt weapons sales to Turkey.
In addition, Turkish officials have been unsuccessfully negotiating with German manufacturers to acquire engine and transmission system for the Altay, Turkey’s first indigenous main battle tank in the making. Berlin has cited political concerns for its reluctance to permit any technology transfer for the Altay.
A German diplomat told Defense News that Turkey’s operation in Syria hurts Turkey’s negotations for Altay technology. "We simply don’t want German technology used in any cross-border operation targeting Kurds,” the official said.
The German embargo jeopardizes Turkey’s planned program to upgrade scores of German-made Leopard II battle tanks. The Turkish Army has in its inventory 720 Leopard I and Leopard II tanks. About 200 of them have been upgraded.
Joe Gould and Leo Shane III in Washington contributed to this report.
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.