U.S. still eyeing sanctions, F-35 exit for Turkey over S-400s

Washington is still planning to impose sanctions on Turkey and remove it from a critical F-35 fighter jet programme should Ankara go through with its plans to acquire Russian S-400 air defences, despite assurances from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the contrary, according to U.S. officials.

Following a meeting with this U.S. counterpart Donald Trump on Saturday on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, the Turkish president dismissed threats from top-level U.S. officials that Washington was preparing to hit Turkey with sanctions over it’s planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defence system.

“We have heard from him personally that this would not happen,” Erdoğan said referring to Trump.  “We are strategic partners with the United States. As strategic partners, nobody has the right to meddle in Turkey’s sovereign rights. Everyone should know this,” he said.

However, Washington intends to impose sanctions on Turkey and pull it from the F-35 fighter jet programme if it takes delivery of the system, as expected, Reuters said on Wednesday citing U.S. government officials.

“The United States has consistently and clearly stated that Turkey will face very real and negative consequences if it proceeds with its S-400 acquisition, including suspension of procurement and industrial participation in the F-35 program and exposure to sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA),” Reuters quoted a State Department spokeswoman as saying.

According to the spokesman at the Pentagon, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews, Washington is remaining firm on the matter.

“Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air and missile defence system is incompatible with the F-35 program. Turkey will not be permitted to have both systems,” Andrews told Reuters.

Washington opposes the S-400 deal since the Russian system is not compatible with Western-made NATO systems. According to the United States, if Turkish military operated both the F-35s and S-400s, it would allow Russia to glean sensitive information about the advanced fighter jets. 

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are broadly opposed to allowing Turkey to have both systems and Washington has already started the process of removing Turkey from the F-35 programme.

On July 1, Representative Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, reiterated that Turkey should be kicked out of the F-35 programme should it go through with the S-400 purchase.

“If Turkey operates the S-400 and the F-35, it would place the lives of all future American and allied F-35 pilots at risk. President Trump ought to side with the men and women who fly these planes, not a Turkish autocrat desperate to maintain his grip on power,‘’ Engel said in the statement addressing the meeting between Trump and Erdoğan over the weekend.

In the meantime, the training of Turkish pilots in the United States on the aircraft has been halted.

Some experts, such as Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East program at think-tank FPRI, believe the U.S. President could try to change course with a last-minute deal on Patriots as a way of saving face for him and Erdoğan.

“Trump may try and get a waiver,” Stein told Reuters. “This may only buy 180 more days to reach a deal on Patriot, while S-400 is deployed, and Turkey is removed from the F-35 consortium.”

According to Erdoğan, Turkey will receive the first delivery of the S-400 missile systems in July.

Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper reported on Wednesday that, the first surface-to-air systems will be deployed in Ankara, but will not be operational for a while. Cumhuriyet also said that S-400s would not be integrated to medium and long-range radar units of NATO in Turkey.