United States-Türkiye Rapprochement: NATO Allies Hold Largest Military Drills in 7 Years
Author: Toghrul Ali
Sep 6, 2023
In August, Türkiye and the United States held their largest joint military exercises in seven years, while a U.S. congressional delegation visited Ankara to hold high-level talks regarding Türkiye’s purchase of F-16 fighter jets. Now, after nearly a decade of strained relations, the United States is positioning itself to reengage with its distant North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally. The success of these face-to-face rapprochement efforts demonstrates a shared interest between the United States and Türkiye to rebuild their longstanding alliance.
Dating its roots back to the brink of the Cold War, the strategic alliance between the United States and Türkiye has been extremely important for both countries. However, Türkiye’s contradictory approaches to relations with NATO and Russia have prompted hesitation from some of its NATO allies, especially since its purchase of Russia’s S400 air defense system. However, since the war in Ukraine has caused deep fractures in global politics, unifying the West against the Kremlin has become more important than ever. Now, after years of worrisome speculation about the future of the U.S.-Turkish alliance, several recent developments seem to suggest that the interests of the two NATO allies are realigning.
On August 25, the USS Gerald R. Ford, the world’s largest aircraft carrier, arrived at the Turkish port of Antalya. Prior to the arrival of the carrier, a series of joint naval and combat drills were held involving Turkish naval ships and F-16 fighter jets, as well as the U.S. Navy’s Gerald R. Ford Strike Group (GRFCSG) and American F-18 jets. As a part of the ship’s deployment to the U.S. Naval Forces Europe (NAVEUR) area of operations, this was its fourth stop following Norway, Croatia, and Greece.
During a combined demonstration with the Turkish navy flagship, TCG Anadolu, U.S. Ambassador to Türkiye Jeff Flake hosted key government and military leaders onboard the USS Gerald R. Ford in a symbolic gesture, including Selçuk Bayraktar, the CEO of Türkiye’s homegrown drone manufacturer, Baykar.
As restrictions on major U.S. arms sales on Türkiye encouraged Erdoğan’s government to expand the country’s domestic defense industry, Türkiye has rapidly emerged as a leader in armed drone manufacturing in recent years, with Baykar’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) playing a crucial role in conflicts spanning from the Second Karabakh War to the Libyan Civil War. In this line, future defense cooperation between the United States and Türkiye can help Turkiye once again become a significant defense ally within NATO.
U.S. Commander of the Carrier Strike Group 12, Rear Adm. Erik J. Eslich, said that “[t]he exercises strengthened the bond we share with Türkiye and enhanced our common understanding of maritime tactics and procedures advancing interoperability objectives… Additionally, our collective efforts reinforce our shared goals of promoting peace and stability in the region.” Moreover, while the military drills were taking place, a U.S. Air Force task force visited the Turkish Incirlik Air Base in southern Türkiye to “assess the feasibility of returning to standard OCONUS [outside the continental U.S.] tours.” Given that the U.S. Air Force ended its accompanied tours in Incirlik in 2016 after the attempted military coup in Türkiye, this is an important development with the potential to rekindle the bilateral military cooperation between the two countries.
In fact, these joint military exercises marked the largest military collaboration between the two countries since their bilateral relations hit a decline around 2016. For several years, the core of the strained U.S.-Türkiye relations remained Ankara’s 2017 decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system, and Washington’s subsequent decision to impose sanctions in December 2020 alongside the removal of Türkiye from the F-35 fighter program. Further tightening of the language about sanctions in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) created a heavy conditionality, causing a so-called political impasse between the two NATO allies.
However, with the geopolitical dynamics shifting with the onset of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Türkiye’s global role as a strategic actor has become more evident. Under the Montreux Convention signed in 1936, Türkiye oversees maritime traffic in the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, granting the country legal authority over passages that significantly impact maritime operations in the Black Sea. In this line, Türkiye was the main broker, along with the United Nations, in the signing of the Black Sea Grain Initiative in 2022 with Russia, which ensured commercial exports of much-needed Ukrainian grain to the world markets through the Bosphorus. However, the initiative, considered one of the few diplomatic achievements since the start of the war, fell through in July 2023.
Since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reelection in May amidst difficult economic conditions, Türkiye and the United States have been coming to terms about seeking rapprochement. During NATO’s annual summit held in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July, Türkiye agreed to abandon its long-held opposition to Sweden’s NATO membership in a bid to improve ties with the United States and to buy American-made F-16 fighter jets. Following the meeting between Erdoğan and his American counterpart, President Joe Biden, on the sidelines, it was implied that the U.S. administration intends to move forward with the sale of 40 new F-16s, as well as kits to upgrade the jets already in Türkiye’s possession. The agreement provides a historic opportunity to become a shifting point for U.S.-Türkiye relations, allowing the sides to reach an agreement on several issues in which American and Turkish interests complement each other, especially in regard to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Source: U.S. Embassy Türkiye (Twitter)
The military rapprochement between the two allies has not only been limited to naval exercises. On August 21, the United States, Türkiye, and 20 other allies, including Caspian region countries such as Georgia and Azerbaijan, kicked off a major air defense and airborne readiness exercise, “Agile Spirit 2023... Held in Georgia, the exercises are designed to deploy “combat-credible” forces into the country in order “to bolster their defense efforts and deter aggression in the Black Sea region.” In this regard, the potential deepening of military cooperation between the United States and Türkiye has the capacity to offer a pathway for countries within the Caspian region to augment their military connections with the United States. As the countries in the post-Soviet space become more wary of Russia’s aggressive acts against Ukraine, they are likely to seek greater external collaboration to safeguard their territorial integrity.
These signs of a potential U.S.-Türkiye rapprochement shouldn’t come as a surprise in light of the current situation in Ukraine. While Türkiye continues to maintain close relations with Russia, their relations can be best described as a “cooperative competition.” The two countries have found themselves in soft proxy wars through military, political, and economic support to the opposing sides in the territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, in Eastern Ukraine between the secessionists and the government forces, and in Libya between the UN-backed Tripoli government and the opposing forces led by Khalifa Haftar. The use of highly efficient UAVs, commonly known as combat drones, by the Turkish military has altered the course of the previously mentioned conflicts in their favor and played a key role in its reassertion as a regional power. This gives more support to the notion that as a NATO ally, Türkiye’s role as a counterbalance to Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia can and should be utilized by the United States in its foreign policy.