Turkey's long-range missile testing

Published 23.11.2015 01:16

Turkey's plan to purchase an air defense system, which has a clear potential to change the regional balance in the Middle East, was the most interesting outcome of the G20

Last weekend, Turkey hosted the G20 Leaders Summit in Antalya, a tourist hub on the Mediterranean shore, under the auspices of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. By all accounts, the event was a success. Given that the G20 summit kicked off just hours after the Paris attacks and key figures including U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin were attending, the focus shifted from the economy to terrorism and the Syrian conflict. The leaders issued a political communique alongside the economic communique for the first time in the organization's history, to reiterate their commitment to fighting terrorism.

Personally, I found two things about the summit quite interesting.

The first issue related to the future of Syria's Bashar Assad. Ahead of the G20 summit, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had said that the international community had agreed on a roadmap for democratic transition in Syria. A transition government would be formed within the first six months of 2016 and elections would be held within 18 months. It was curious that Kerry provided no insights into Bashar Assad's situation.

During the G20 summit, however, Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu argued that Assad won't run in the Syrian election. On the same day, Erdoğan and Obama made similarly worded statements to reiterate that there was no place in Syria's future for Assad. The message was so strong that it seemed like the parties had reached an agreement in Vienna. Over the next couple of days, I reached out to my sources in the Turkish capital to inquire about Sinirlioğlu's statement. "The Russians aren't strongly opposed to Assad watching the election from the sidelines," he said. "But Tehran remains committed to defending the regime." In other words, the alliance between Russia and Iran seems to be weakening, but it's clearly too early to suggest that Assad has started vacating the presidential palace. Although not all stakeholders have reached an agreement on Assad's future, it is nonetheless noteworthy that Erdoğan and Obama continued publicly questioning Assad's legitimacy after the G20 summit. Last week, John Kerry also said that Turkey and the United States would engage in a joint military operation to remove DAESH from the Turkish border - another key outcome of the summit.

Another surprising development was Turkey's plans to purchase an air defense system. Back in 2008, the government entered the market for a missile defense system to address regional challenges. Two years later, the authorities launched a public tender for the Turkish Long Range Air and Missile Defense System, dubbed T-LORAMIDS, to defend the country from aerial national security threats. The government had two priorities: They wanted to keep the price as low as possible and they wanted Turkish engineers to learn how to develop an air defense system themselves. The technology transfer was therefore included in the list of requirements.

In the end, companies from the United States, Russia and China as well as a joint Italian-French venture entered the bidding process. Given that China's CPMIEC was the only bidder willing to consider a technology transfer, the government reached an agreement with them. In light of this decision, certain parties raised the challenges of integrating a Chinese-made missile defense system into the NATO network. Around the same time, a public debate about the government's "axis shift" kicked off inside Turkey. The government, however, was determined to move forward with the negotiations. In the end, the Chinese company proved unwilling to train Turkish engineers as they initially suggested.

Upon learning about the disagreement over the technology transfer, I published a story in Sabah's March 1 issue, which pointed out that "the government will start from scratch if the Chinese company won't reconsider a technology transfer." Eight months later, the government announced that the Chinese deal was off. When the news hit the wires, I reached out to my sources in Ankara to figure out what course of action the government would take. It would appear that they decided to move forward with domestic production, possibly backed by international partners. In other words, Turkey might accept offers from the United States or China, among others, to develop a national air defense system.

The idea behind Turkey's decision reflects a shift in priorities. Keeping in mind that a number of regional powers have long-range missiles that violated their neighbors' airspaces, Turkey has officially abandoned its exclusively defensive approach. With violent conflict erupting across the Middle East and national security threats reaching new heights, it would appear that the government has initiated work on a missile defense system that is capable of deterring potential aggressors.

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