German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, recently described the Turkish deployment into the Kurdish-controlled region of Syria as an “invasion” that was illegal under international law. His comments come during a time of strained relations between the two nations, with many others in the EU and NATO similarly scrutinising their relationships with Turkey. Despite economic sanctions, international condemnation, and arms trade suspensions, German industrialists still trade heavily with Turkey, even in the field of armaments. German-Turkish arms sales are currently at a 14-year high, with Germany representing Turkey’s single largest arms trader.
An ambiguous partner
Although it is a member of NATO and an important geopolitical ally, in bordering Syria, Iraq, and Iran, Turkey has demonstrated frequently disparate interests to those of its NATO partners.
The Syrian offensive is one example of this. The Turkish army is being deployed to attack Kurdish-led forces in Syria, who until a few months ago were vital in the fight against Islamic State (IS). The wider consequences of this, the increased possibility of conflict between NATO and Russia, the role that pushing out the Kurds could have in any re-emergence of IS in Syria – putting these aside, the Syrian offensive is plainly contrary to NATO’s regional objectives and represents a direct attack on a NATO ally.
The gap between Turkish defence priorities and those of its NATO partners was further highlighted by Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia. As a result of the Russian missile platform purchase, a fighter jet partnership between the U.S and Turkey was unilaterally cancelled. The U.S made clear that the “F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities”.
Another concern, and a crucial factor in the breakdown of Turkey’s EU ascension ambitions, was the nation’s poor human rights record. Turkey has been accused of unethical treatment of Turkish Kurds and the repression of the Kurdish culture within its borders. Kurdish political expression in Turkey has been strongly repressed by the state.
The Turkish government has also been building a reputation as authoritarian regime and an adversary of the free press. High-profile cases of imprisonment have included the arrest of German citizens and journalists such as Deniz Yücel, Mesale Tolu, and the human rights activist Peter Steudtner. German spokespeople decried the charges for being politically motivated.
“Turkey is neither an ally nor an enemy,” explained Steven A. Cook, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. The above episodes are but a few of the examples why, though there are many. The ambiguous nature of Turkey’s role as geopolitical ally and trading partner demands that countries carefully re-evaluate their industrial, political, and military ties to it. While Turkey’s record is poor, other world powers must also question their own dealings, particularly those which enable Turkish bad practice, especially through the strengthening of its military.
Germany’s questionable role
Turkey’s track record does not prevent high-profile European industrialist from trading with it, even in the field of armaments. In fact, German arms sales to Turkey totalled €242m last year, almost a third of the German defence sector’s total production. In the first eight months of 2019, arms sales rose to €250m, the highest since 2005.
One of the companies responsible is Rheinmetall, a significant player in German arms production. The company has multiple divisions, producing everything from guns and ammunition, to military reconnaissance electronic equipment and vehicle parts. The company has been trading in guns and ammunition for almost 130 years.
Rheinmetall’s contributions to Krauss-Maffei’s Leopard 2 A4 main battle tank are salient, particularly as Turkey made use of these tanks during its incursions into Syria in 2018. Likely they are being used in the present invasion, or they have been stationed elsewhere in support to allow the deployment of other weapons systems. Either way, both companies have directly contributed to Turkish armaments used in Syria.
Rheinmetall is noteworthy because it is among a select number of German companies which have been looking to expand their presence in Turkey in the wake of the failed coup attempt of 2016. The arms producer entered into an arrangement with Turkey’s BMC, which is 50 percent owned by Qatar, with plans to open a tank factory under the banner of joint venture RBSS. This is particularly troubling as it would likely provide an unchecked distribution channel through which Rheinmetall weapon systems could reach the wider Arabic market, circumventing German arms sales laws.
ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems is a German holding company for a range of providers of naval vessels, surface ships, and submarines. The group has a contract with Turkey to supply 6 of its U-214 AIP-type Reis Class Submarines, capable of firing advanced torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
The deal has started to draw added criticism in the context of Turkey’s continued drilling off the coast of Cyprus. With the EU cutting €146m in EU funds from the pre-ascension purse and halting European Investment Bank activities in the country, some commentators think that equipping the Turkish navy sends the wrong message.
ThyssenKrupp has multiple industrial interests in Turkey, not least of which is a new escalator factory in Kocaeli, a north-western province which has seen rapid, extensive industrial development.
ThyssenKrupp shares this industrial hotspot with around 2000 other industrial firms, among them are Germany’s giants Siemens and Bayer. The Turkish government continues to do little to ensure the well-being of its citizens in the region through enforcement of meaningful clean air and anti-pollution legislation, despite spikes in health concerns.
Siemens opened a factory in 2017 employing around 1000 people and contributing roughly €100m to the Turkish economy. However, as with the many other conglomerates in the industrial zone, the move was not without controversy.
The car maker Volkswagen also has plans of its own to build a factory in Manisa in the west of Turkey’s Anatolia region. While this decision has faced political scrutiny, VW insists that Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership vindicates industrial expansion in the country.
The consequences of supporting Turkish ends
We might not have to wait much longer to see some of the more extreme realities resulting from Turkish misconduct, namely through its involvement in Syria.
Many groups have been voicing concern that the Turkish advance may well seed an IS resurgence. More crucially, it has also strengthened Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who in the wake of U.S withdrawal and the Turkish-Russian territorial deal, now controls large sections of the Syrian northern border previously held by the Syrian Democratic Forces. This is contrary to NATO objectives, bolstering Russian capacity to act in the region, and securing a cruel dictator his opportunity to continue to break human rights laws, repressing his people for years to come.
“ISIS (Islamic State) has a second life…Russia and the (Syrian) regime will take back all of the territory and Iran has freedom of movement across the region,” said one U.S official in the wake of the brokered deal.
The EU cannot afford to continue its track-record of bluster followed by inaction. NATO members need to carefully weigh the ethical costs of continuing to align themselves with a Turkish president with such clearly dictatorial leanings. In order to do that, countries like Germany need to make certain that they are willing to pay the price in terms of loss of trade and loss of arms sales, to distance themselves from the actions of such malign rulers.