Turkey must abandon S-400s if it wants F-35s – Esper

Turkey can have either the U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets or Russian made S-400 missile system but not both, said the Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a press conference at the Pentagon on Wednesday. 

Esper said Washington’s Turkish allies may be allowed back into the F-35 programme only if Ankara completely removes its S-400s "out of the country".

Turkey was expelled from the F-35 programme after receiving its first batch of S-400 missile systems from Russia in July. 

It began receiving the second batch of S-400s batteries on Tuesday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in Russia on the same day at the MAKS air show, where he inspected export models of Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57 fighter jet.

There has been much speculation that Turkey may not activate the S-400s even if they are already deployed. 

Currently, the United States appears to have postponed the planned Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions (CAATSA) measures, which aim to deter third parties from defence partnership with Russia, until Turkey activates the S-400s.

Esper said it would not be enough for Turkey to simply leave the S-400s inoperative if Ankara wants to reclaim its place in the F-35 programme, but that it would need to remove the systems entirely from the country.

“Turkey is a long-standing partner and ally. I would hope they would move back to our direction and really live up to what NATO agreed to many years ago, which is to begin divesting Soviet era, the Russia equipment. It seems they are moving a different direction", Esper said.

At the same press briefing, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford also responded to reporters' questions, including one on the recently announced safe zone on the border of Turkey and Syria. 

Dunford said that Washington and Ankara had "agreed on a broad approach" with regards to Turkey's concerns about the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but he stopped short of providing a specific date on the start of joint border patrols.

Ankara sees the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its affiliate Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as offshoots of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and says the SDF-controlled regions in northeast Syria pose a threat to Turkey’s national security. 

Erdoğan has said Turkey has been subjected to "harassment" from northeast of Syria, though observers of the region have said that the Kurdish groups have not engaged in hostile action.

U.S. and Turkish officials announced an agreement to implement a safe zone clear of SDF and allied fighters on August 7, after the Turkish president threatened to launch a cross-border offensive. 

Dunford recalled the “coordination centre” set up by the United States and Turkey to address Turkish security concerns on the northern Syria border, including the removal of heavy weapons.

Asked about the joint U.S.-Turkish patrols planned for the safe zone, Dunford said "that's all being worked out in a coordination centre."

Despite the series of serious disagreements that have marred U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years, Dunford gave an upbeat response to reporters when asked about the countries’ relationship.

“We have many more areas of convergence than divergence", said Dunford, adding that Turkey is an important NATO ally.

“If you look at Turkey’s national interest and the U.S. national interest, they are much more closely aligned than any other interlocutor Turkey may be dealing right now." Dunford said.

Dunford will be retired from his duty in few weeks.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.