UK increases weapons sales to Turkey as Brexit looms

Newly published statistics reveal that since July, the UK sold arms to Turkey, one of 35 priority markets for the £12 billion (Dh55bn) British defence industry.

Turkish gendarmes block the road at a military checkpoint in Diyarbakir, south-east Turkey, during 2016 operations against the PKK. AFP / Ilyas Akengin
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The UK’s push to expand its trade networks after the Brexit referendum included the sale of almost £50 million (Dh183.62m) worth of weaponry to Turkey since the failed coup.

Newly published export statistics reveal that since July, the UK has sold missiles, bombs, drones, aircraft, and body armour to Turkey, identified last year by the British government as one of 35 priority markets for the £12bn British defence industry.

Turkey has bought around £330m worth of arms from the UK since 2015. By comparison, Turkey purchased £48m worth of arms from the UK in 2010.

The sales come as Turkey faces its most precarious security situation in decades. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cracked down on opposition parties and civil society groups in response to last July's failed coup. The following month, Ankara launched a land and air offensive into Syria to fight ISIS as well as Kurdish militants, while continuing a campaign within its own borders against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

In response, ISIS and Kurdish extremist groups carried out a series of mass-casualty suicide attacks in the past year, including on Istanbul’s main airport and a nightclub on New Year.

The increase in arms sales benefits both countries as they face their own very different but equally pressing challenges.

In September, Boris Johnson, visiting Turkey for the first time in his capacity as the UK foreign secretary, signalled his government’s intent to continue business as usual with Mr Erdogan’s government.

“What I hope for is a jumbo free-trade deal between the United Kingdom and Turkey,” Mr Johnson said.

In 2015, the last year for which figures are available, bilateral trade between the UK and Turkey stood at £11.2bn.

The British government’s intent to begin negotiating new trade deals has caught the attention of officials in EU countries.

In Brussels last week, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, emphasised that the UK can only sign such deals after the Brexit process is completed.

Hungary’s foreign minister Peter Szijjarto worried that the UK’s negotiations would build up its trade networks with the rest of the world while overlooking its importance to the EU.

“So if the UK will be able to sign economic and trade agreements with many serious actors of the world economy, and if the EU is not able to build this kind of cooperation with the UK, then it is going to be a very unfavourable position for us,” Mr Szijjarto said.

But as the British government seeks to use its arms industry to strengthen the economy ahead of Brexit, there is growing domestic criticism.

Andrew Smith, a spokesman for the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), a British non-profit organisation, said weapons exports to Turkey are benefiting an increasingly repressive regime.

An estimated 90,000 civil servants have lost their jobs in Turkey since Mr Erdogan began consolidating his power after defeating the coup last July. Roughly 40,000 people – judges, bureaucrats, army generals, teachers and civil rights activists – have been arrested.

“The levels of repression in Turkey have certainly gone up since the coup,” Mr Smith told The National. “But there have been concerns about human rights in Turkey for a few years now.”

Amnesty International claimed to have “credible reports” that many detainees suffered beatings, torture and even rape.

In a tweet last October, Turkey’s justice minister Bekir Bozdag said: “There is no mistreatment or torture in Turkish prisons. Those who say otherwise are slanderers if they can’t prove their claims.”

Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, a government spokesperson insisted that Britain "operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world".

“We rigorously examine every application on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated [European Union] and national arms export licensing criteria,” the spokesperson said. “Our export licensing system allows us to respond quickly to changing facts on the ground. We have suspended or revoked licences when the level of risk changes and we constantly review local situations.”