Shi'ite fighters fire a rocket towards Islamic State militants during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq November 18, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani
Shi'ite fighters fire a rocket towards Islamic State militants during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq November 18, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani

In search of a post-Brexit international dimension, Britain is trying to exploit its arms-export potential to forge new trade and security ties across the globe. As usual, Middle Eastern countries top the British list of clients.

So no wonder the United Kingdom will help Turkey build on its own fighter jet. And this while a significant part of the British public opinion has been growing hostile to the country’s policy of arming regimes known for their poor human rights record, in particular after the government of Her Majesty has licensed billions of dollars in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia in the past two years.

But here, it is not only ethics at play. London’s armaments sale policy toward the warn-torn and politically unstable Middle East could in fact backfire, undermined by its own strategic contradictions.

During a visit to Turkey on January 28, British Prime Minister Theresa May clinched a US$127 million deal to co-develop with Ankara a new fighter aircraft for the Turkish air force. Britain’s BAE Systems will design the TF-X jet in partnership with Turkish Aerospace Industries. In itself, the economic amount at stake is not huge, but May – who aims to turn the UK into Turkey’s largest arms provider – expects the arrangement to generate contracts worth billions of dollars over a period of 20 years.

London is heading for a hard Brexit – its exit from the European Union (EU) – and May wants to show up at the negotiating table with the European bloc in a position of strength. Hence, her marked focus on bilateral trade partnerships with fast-growing countries in Asia.

Arms sales, which London has managed to boost over the past decade, amid the global economic recession, are a strong business and geopolitical card in the hands of the British rulers. They are indeed immune to the ups and downs of the economic cycle and, at the same time, foster close security bonds between suppliers and buyers.

The UK was the world’s seventh-largest arms exporter in 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Britain’s outbound weaponry deliveries were worth US$10.6 billion from 2007 to 2015; of this total, US$4.6 billion in arms ended up in the Middle East. As British weapons sales to Middle Eastern countries accounted for 44 percent of its total deliveries during this stint, they had reached 18 percent in the 2000-2006 timeframe.

Saudi Arabia is Britain’s top foreign buyer of armaments. Between 2008 and 2015, London provided the Saudi monarchy with US$4 billion in military hardware, including lethal weapons such as Typhoon fighter ground attack aircrafts, air-to-surface missiles and guided bombs.

The British cabinet has come under fire for approving $US3.8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia since the start, in March 2015, of Riyadh’s armed intervention in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, which fight the government of incumbent Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Thus, in the economic crisis’ lean years, the arms-export market has proved to be a safety net for the British economy. May’s bet is that the scheme can work for the post-Brexit period, too. In the face of this prospect, human rights campaigners in Britain are making their voice loud, accusing the British cabinet of colluding with Middle Eastern strongmen, the likes of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Salman. The British human rights advocates have blamed the Turkish president for cracking down on his opponents in the wake of the failed coup last summer and criticized the Saudi monarch for his military’s air strike campaign in Yemen, which would have reportedly killed many civilians.

In defending her government’s decisions, May has repeatedly stressed that the UK’s military collaboration with Turkey falls within their common membership to the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization, as there is no conclusive evidence of human rights violations by the Saudis in Yemen.

In addition to the humanitarian implications of the current British arms sale policy, May’s efforts to find a new geopolitical space for Britain through weaponry export also pose strategic problems that she may not have taken into account; and London’s courting of Ankara is a case in point.

The UK is providing air support to Syrian Kurds in their fight against the self-styled Islamic State (IS). The Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are in fact the best asset on the ground for the US-led military coalition against the IS in Syria. Now, the PYD and the YPG are considered by Ankara to be terrorist groups associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which operates within the Turkish territory.

In this context, a future scenario in which British-Turkish-built TF-X fighters pound the Syrian Kurds positions in northern Syria is not so implausible. In some way, it would be history repeating itself, with Western weapons getting turned against Western interests in the Middle East – not a great outcome for a British government that wants to expand its geopolitical range outside the EU grouping.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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