The United States has halted its plans to deliver F-35 fighter jets to citing Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile systems.
“They have accepted the S-400s, which means they will not receive the F-35s,” United States (US) Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Friday.
Esper told reporters during a media briefing at the Pentagon together with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark A Milley that he was routinely discussing this issue with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar.
Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 system is regarded by the US as well as NATO as a direct threat to the security of the F-35s, American Lockheed Martin’s aircraft.
Turkey was building some parts of the aircraft and was also planning to buy more than 100 of the planes. Turkey has already been removed from the Pentagon’s F-35 program.
In July, before he was appointed to his current post, Esper said Turkey would not have both the Russian S-400s and the F-35s.
“They have been a long-standing and very capable NATO ally, but their decision on the S-400 is the wrong one, and it is disappointing. You can either have the S-400, or you can have the F-35. You cannot have both,” Esper said at the time.
On Tuesday, the US Senate passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to halt the delivery of F-35 jets to Turkey and to suspend the country’s participation in the F-35 building program. US President Donald Trump is expected to approve the bill.
The bill also includes sanctions on companies and governments working on the controversial TurkStream pipeline project, which is set to launch in January. With the project, Russian natural gas will be carried to Turkey and then to Europe.
Further, Turkey may face more stiff sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) over its S-400 acquisition and incursion into Syria.
On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was not a country that will have its hands tied and would respond with retaliatory measures against US sanctions.
“Both the S-400s and the steps regarding the F-35s, these are done deals. This [the bill] literally means violating our rights. Of course, we will have our own sanctions against all these. I mean, we are not a nation that will stand idly by with its hands tied,” Erdogan said during a meeting with the press at the end of a summit of Muslim countries’ leaders in Malaysia.
On Sunday, the Turkish president vowed to close the Incirlik Air Force Base and Kurecik Radar Station, both of which are used by the Americans, if Washington goes on with sanctions over Turkey’s S-400 acquisition and incursion into Syria.
“If necessary, we will hold discussions with all our delegations, and if necessary, we may close Incirlik [in the southern province of Adana] and Kurecik [in the eastern province of Malatya],” Erdogan said.
When asked about Erdogan’s recent threat, Esper said he needs to understand what is driving that remark and how serious the Turks are.
“It is our opinion that we need to bind them closer to the NATO alliance. Because they have a capable military and they are our allies for years,” the secretary argued.
In the briefing, Esper also touched on Washington’s presence in Syria, saying there was no estimate on when 600- US troops would be withdrawn from the oil-rich regions of the war-torn country.
“That is a crystal ball that I do not have. I think we are there as long as we can ensure the enduring defeat of [the Islamic State] ISIS,” Esper said.
In October, Trump changed his previous decision on full withdrawal from Syria, ordering instead to guard the oil-producing region against the ISIS attacks.
The stated US aim is to allow its ally Kurdish People’s Democratic Units (YPG) to extract oil and monetize it.
Speaking at the Global Forum on Refugees in Geneva on Tuesday, Erdogan accused the US of acting more quickly to guard Syria’s oil fields than its children.
“Unfortunately, the efforts [by the US] that were spared to protect the oil fields were not mobilized for the safety and security of the children in Syria,” Erdogan claimed.
Ankara launched an offensive against the US-backed YPG in northeastern Syria, aiming to clear its militia from the border region and set up a “safe zone” to resettle Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
At the time, Erdogan claimed that Trump had given the green light to launch Turkey’s incursion, although the US administration refuted his claim. Trump faced harsh criticism by many for his order to withdraw US troops from the region just before the Turkish operation.
Earlier this month, the US president praised his Turkish counterpart and said Turkey was doing a good job in its military operation in northern Syria. US lawmakers and the Pentagon officials have, on the other hand, been harshly critical of Turkey’s military action.
Instead of imposing severe sanctions on Turkey, Trump favors negotiations with the country’s strongman.
In the S-400 case, Trump places the blame on his predecessor, the Obama administration, as it previously declined to provide a transfer of the sensitive missile technology of the US Patriot system.