Ilhan Tanir
Jun 15 2019

Turkish Army frustrated over losing out on F-35 programme - Pentagon

In the second part of Ahval’s exclusive interview with Pentagon Spokesperson Eric Pahon, we go into more depth on last week’s letter from U.S. Acting Defence Secretary to Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar. Pahon discusses some of the possible repercussions of Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 programme if it fails to meet the letter’s demand to drop the deal for Russian S-400 systems by July 31, before delving into the other issues raising tensions with Turkey.

The content of the letter was reported on June 6, and you released it to Ahval the next day. After a week of silence on the issue, Turkish Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın came out on Thursday to condemn U.S. officials for “trying to put pressure” on Turkey by leaking the letter. Do you have any response for Kalın?

It was not our intention for that letter to make it into the press. We typically keep our diplomatic correspondence confidential. Once the first story published however, we quickly responded to provide the proper background to prevent our message from being taken out of context. Our military relationships with our Turkish counterparts are important and we work hard to maintain those relationships, even as we work out difficult issues, like the one currently facing us with the S-400 situation.

That letter gave a final deadline for Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 programme. Do you think the Turkish military will be bothered that it is missing the latest technology coming with F-35s, while some of regional neighbors such as Israel, Greece or Poland are acquiring it?

Well, as you mentioned, Poland just announced their intent to buy 32 of the F35-A fighter jets. It’s a fantastic platform and more of our allies are seeing the value in that platform, clearly.  There was a great demonstration over the White House, in fact, Wednesday.  Our Turkish counterparts, obviously, have expressed their frustration with this S-400 issue. We’ve followed the evolution of this story in the press, of course.  Turkey made significant investment in the F-35 programme, Turkey manufactures some of the parts, they have deep ties to this programme.  You have to remember that.

So, yes, it's certainly something painful that they will have to consider, that their neighbours and allies and sometime adversaries have this advanced technology but they (Turkish Armed Forces) do not. This all has to be considered in the path Turkey chooses to move forward with.

This is all the more reason to see why the S-400 deal is not a good long-term strategy. You have to question if they are looking at what the long-term impacts and ramifications will be.  We want to be Turkey’s partner for the long-term.

Russia, if you look at their history of partnerships over the past decade or so in the region, is what I’d call transactional and temporary at best. I mean, look at what they’re doing in Syria. Their alliances shift depending on what suits them for the time being. They claim to support Assad’s brutal regime, and claim allegiances with other actors in the country, but when those “friends” come under fire, where is Russia?  On the other hand, look at the duration of our partnerships in the Middle East. Look at the depth.  Look at all our interaction and cooperation with Turkey. Russia on the other hand, continues to indiscriminately bomb Syrian citizens, causing a humanitarian disaster, which Turkey is then left to deal with. Not a great partner there. On the other hand, the U.S. is working with Turkey to deal with their legitimate security issues. What is Russia doing?  They’re causing those problems then capitalizing on the human suffering they’re responsible for.

There have been recent reports that the S-400 would be deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean region, in the south or southwest of Turkey. Would that be a challenge for the United States?

As long as we continue to work as allies and continue to work as partners it will not necessarily be a challenge. We don't want to see Russian air defence systems deployed close to where we are operating. But we know there is a heavy Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean already. It is a bigger challenge here getting over this F-35 co-location issue.

Turkey has already invested over $1 billion in the F-35 and Mr. Erdoğan keeps talking about this. What will happen to that money? Is a refund possible?

That is a discussion that our leaders will have at some point in the future. For now, we are taking the necessary slow, measured steps to remove Turkey from the F-35 programme, and protect the long-term safety and security of the F-35, but the issues you mentioned are not fully fleshed out yet, as far as I’m aware. Look, as I said, we haven’t given up yet on working out a solution that works for both countries.

The time frame is very soon…

We gave the deadline as July 31, but if Turkey deploys the S-400 sooner, then we will accelerate the removal procedure. It is Turkey's call, really.

The United States is increasing its partnerships with Greece. Is this a move to replace Turkey?

I do not want to get that far ahead. We hosted the Greek Defence Minister last Friday. We have discussed some expanded troop presence in Greece, some expanded cooperation bilaterally – I’m not sure if it is anything to do with Turkey. We always look to deepen partnerships in the region, especially considering the increasing Russian presence there.

How do you view the People’s Protection Units (YPG)?

Our partners in Syria are the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), which includes some Kurdish forces. Look, we are working with Turkey to resolve that situation as much as we can. We need to stay focused on the fact that we’ve defeated ISIS territorially, but they still stay as a clear and present threat.

We are working to alleviate Turkey's concerns. We have heard their complaints at all levels. We have obviously partnered with some forces that Turkey has displayed its displeasure about.

Now, what we do to maintain our relationship, is we talk to Turkey very often. It is one of our closest allies.

Phenomenal daily contact with Turkey is being conducted in this building. Last time we had such a major crisis was after the coup attempt in 2016, and some again are asking, as they did then, if this is the end of Turkey-U.S. relations. The answer from both sides was an unequivocal "no". We have one of the strongest military-military relationships with Turkey, out of all our partners.

We continue intensive discussions with Turkey on a security mechanism to address their legitimate security concerns along the Turkey-Syria border.  These are bilateral discussions between the U.S. and Turkey. Our engagements to date have been positive and productive.

So, you don’t think this S-400 issue will break that?

You know the U.S.-Turkey military relationship is thus far a model relationship, and that will continue. I think Minister Akar has expressed to Secretary Shanahan how important this relationship is to him, Secretary Shanahan expressed it back, and (James) Mattis when he was Secretary was singing the same music.

I don't think any of these are going to change. It is too deep and too long-standing. You don’t dissolve a 70-year marriage over a short-term fight. Anyone who has been married long enough knows that.  It is about the bigger relationship. We have to remember this.

Do you think some of the rifts and issues that came out of the coup have healed?

It is an ongoing issue of concern for Turkey, obviously we have heard some concerns and worries. I think it has been publicly theorized that the attempted coup plays into Turkish fears about Western technology. The United States has been unequivocal in denying any involvement in those actions, more so supporting Turkish allies.

We are still supporting Turkey, we are still cooperating. We want to continue that partnership, and we’re open to hear any and all Turkish concerns. And, we’re doing what we can to continue this relationship and work through these issues. There are many issues and the failed coup is one of them.

The last CENTCOM commander, General Votel, said most of his counterparts in Turkey were fired after the coup, but Turkey said those were Gülenists and coupists. Were you at any point worried about the influence of the Gülenists in the Turkish army? Turkey has blamed the religious group as the main actor in the coup.

I don’t know. I wasn't involved then. I began my job here on the week of the coup. So, I wasn't part of those discussions and prior discussions really.

While Turkey appears to be supporting anti-U.S. forces and some al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, the United States appears to be supporting anti-Turkish forces that Turkey sees as [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK affiliates. This not a pretty picture, is it – Turkey and the United States working at cross-purposes in the Syrian conflict?

It is the most complicated battlefield in the history of battlefields. There is Russia, the (Assad) regime, you have Iranians, Hizbullah, al Qaeda, ISIS, various unaffiliated militant groups that swap affiliations here and there. You have criminal groups in Syria as well.

So, how do we work though this situation? The first thing is the 80 members of the Defeat ISIS coalition. It is made up of a lot more than just military troops, we’ve got Interpol, we’ve got international policing organisations, we have the power of NATO, the power of the European Union, the power of the United Nations.

All these things together, sharing intelligence about foreign fighters, prosecuting criminals, extraditing former ISIS members back to their countries. As far as Russia’s involvement in Idlib: you know Russia and Turkey are right now at odds over the Sochi agreement they made. Russia is manufacturing a humanitarian disaster in Syria, which is causing Turkey great difficulty.

I think Turkey should be very concerned about Russia's actions in Syria. Through Russia's gassing and bombing of civilians in Idlib, they are pushing those concerning elements – in some cases innocent civilians and in some cases recognised terror elements – to Turkey's border, and that should be a major concern for Turkey. But our mandate is to fight ISIS and not those elements. From a humanitarian and security perspective, Turkey should be very concerned there.  As I said earlier, Russia is not a reliable security partner in the Middle East.

Do you have any issues with Turkey's current invasion of Afrin?

We support the U.N.-led Geneva peace process under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. A stable Syria would be good for Turkey. But how is that going to work? It won’t work with Russian and Iranian interference. Syria is Russia's testing ground for its military tactics and weapons. Iran have shown themselves as a destabilizing actor. The answer is the Geneva process as the solution. But Turkey, Russia and Iran are cooperating through the Astana agreement. That agreement has not produced a positive result thus far. Ambassador (James) Jeffrey is working on that.

Do you have a final message on the F-35 and S-400 situation? 

I think it is going to be one page in the very long history book in the U.S.-Turkey relationship. We very much hope that we continue to work with Turkey to come to a resolution. I understand it looks dark, and it looks like we are not going to come to an agreeable solution, but we will work through this.

On this side nobody has given up on the discussions yet. Acting Secretary Shanahan continues to say we are going to work through this and we are going to figure it out. We have not taken punitive steps. We hope that they don't view it as punitive. We understand how that may be viewed from the other side. But we are taking the steps to protect the F-35 before it is linked up to S-400s.

The secretary is very much looking forward to speaking with Minister Akar at the NATO Defense Ministerial meeting to continue discussions. We are working from every possible angle to find a resolution for Turkey’s air defence needs that satisfies our security concerns. It is not over until it’s over. There’s still lots of work ongoing on this. We guess we’ll see what happens.

But at the same time you have ended Turkish pilots’ training already? Is it a trust issue?

No, that is not the case at all. Those decisions are made by local commanders. The local commander looked at the overall situation and the emotional impact on these pilots and suspended the training over safety concerns.

I am not sure when it will be reinstated. The secretary has not overruled the local commander's safety concerns. The local commander's job is to make sure those pilots stay alive and safe. I think a similar decision would be made for an American pilot who has undergone traumatic, emotional experience finding out that your career may be changing abruptly. Life plans changing is obviously a significant event. They will make that determination to see if those pilots can get back to the planes.

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