Turkish foreign minister says U.S. hostility to Turkey could threaten İncirlik airbase

Turkey will respond to hostility from the United States in kind, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu warned on Monday, as the quarrel over Turkey’s purchase of Russian-built missile defence systems stretches on.

Çavuşoğlu said this could include measures against significant U.S. military assets in Turkey including İncirlik air base, an important part of the United States’ global defence network.

Planes carrying the first shipments of the S-400 systems arrived in an airbase near Ankara this month. Washington says the Russian-built systems pose a threat to NATO defences, has suspended Turkey from the programme to help build and operate F-35 fighter jets and could level sanctions under a 2017 law that bars allies from buying Russian arms. 

The U.S. Congress has laid out plans to hit Turkey with sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a move that could cut off supplies to Turkey’s defence industry and have far-reaching repercussions for the country’s already ailing economy.

U.S. President Donald Trump is believed to be against sanctions on Turkey, though he will meet stiff resistance from Congress and his own advisers if he attempts to shield Ankara. 

Çavuşoğlu said he expected Trump to block the CAATSA sanctions, echoing previous statements from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who said the U.S. president had reassured him on the issue.

Trump, Çavuşoğlu said, “places importance on Turkey, and on his personal relations with our president. He frequently talks about Turkey’s importance. We know, too, that he has hit back at those seeking to ruin our relations with the United States. When Trump gives his word, he makes every effort to keep it.”

But if Washington does take a “hostile stance” towards Turkey, Ankara is ready to retaliate, the foreign minister said.

“If the United States takes steps against us, we’ll give it a suitable answer, this is quite natural, though it is not our preference”, Çavuşoğlu said. 

“We want to continue as two NATO allies. But if the United States takes a hostile stance to us, we won’t hide anything. We’ll take reciprocal steps”, he said.

Çavuşoğlu shrugged off the suggestion that the current dispute could result in Turkey’s expulsion from NATO as impossible, but said Turks’ disapproval of U.S. policies could lead to actions against important assets of the alliance.

The Turkish nation was growing increasingly discontented with U.S. allies who armed Kurdish militias deemed a security threat by Turkey in northern Syria and who refused to send back Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher blamed for a coup attempt in 2016, the foreign minister said.

“So, we have in our hands İncirlik air base and other issues, (the nation) wants us to take steps on them … For now, whether its İncirlik or Kürecik (radar station), we’ve initiated a process”, said Çavuşoğlu.

İncirlik in southern Turkey is one of the main staging posts for U.S. air operations in the region, and also houses U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. The Kürecik Missile Defence Radar Site near Malatya in eastern Anatolia is an important part of NATO’s defence network providing a shield from Iranian missiles.

Meanwhile, the suspension and possible expulsion from the fighter jet programme means Turkey is unlikely to receive any of the 100 F-35 jets it had planned to purchase. 

Turkey’s priority is to obtain the F-35s it has spent $1.4 billion on already, but if it cannot, it will seek out other suppliers until it is able to produce its own TF-X fighter jets, Çavuşoğlu said.

Russian state-funded media outlet Sputnik reported last week that Turkey was considering buying Su-35 jets from Moscow as an alternative to the F-35. The Eurofighter is another option Turkey’s leadership is weighing up, the pro-government Daily Sabah reported on Saturday. Development of the TF-X fighters is projected for completion by 2028.