U.S. increases pressure on Turkey for S-400 deal, detentions

U.S. lawmakers are ratcheting up pressure on Turkey, aiming to sanction Turkish officials for detaining U.S. citizens and staff and halt the transfer of F-35 fighter jets if Ankara takes delivery of Russian missile defence system.

Senators Roger Wicker and Ben Cardin introduced a bill on Tuesday that would require the United States to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for what they called the wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens and staff, including barring the officials from travel to the United States and freezing any U.S. assets.

The bill refers to American citizen and NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, who has been detained in Turkey for more than two-and-a-half years, as well as American pastor Andrew Brunson, and three jailed Turkish employees of the U.S. government.

“The Turkish government’s false imprisonment of Americans and Turkish citizens employed by the United States in Turkey is a gross violation of their human rights,” Cardin said in a statement. “Our bill makes clear that the United States will not tolerate years of Turkish recalcitrance on these cases.”

The bill calls on President Donald Trump to urge Turkey to restore due process and respect the fundamental freedoms of all its people, thousands of whom the bill says are victims of the same politically motivated prosecution and indefinite detention.

After two years in a Turkish prison, Brunson was convicted on “fabricated terrorism charges”, according to the bill, and released in October 2018. Gölge is serving a five-year sentence because of a similar conviction. In January, Turkey convicted U.S. consulate staffer Hamza Ulucay on terrorism charges “without any credible evidence”, said the bill.

“Turkish authorities should immediately cease this harassment of our citizens and personnel,” said Wicker in the statement. “Turkey is a valuable NATO ally, I expect it to start acting like one.”

Also on Tuesday, Senators Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez introduced a bill to enhance security cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean that included increased defence support for Turkey’s neighbours and halting the delivery of 100 U.S. F-35 fighter jets ordered by Turkey if it completes its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system.

“By lifting the U.S. arms embargo on Cyprus and extending necessary foreign military assistance to Greece, this legislation brings forth a comprehensive approach to the stability of key regional partners,” said Rubio.

Menendez was one of four senator co-authors of a Tuesday op-ed in The New York Times, which stated that by the end of 2019 Turkey would have either the F-35s or the S-400s, but not both.

U.S. officials say Turkey’s use of the S-400s would create an unacceptable risk because its radar system could enable the Russian military to gain insight on F-35 operations, a concern that compelled the Pentagon last week to suspend some activities associated with Turkey’s F-35s. U.S. officials have also threatened Turkey with sanctions for its S-400 purchase.

“Pretty clear message to Turkey which is now between a rock and a hard place,” Economist and Turkey analyst Timothy Ash tweeted on Tuesday. “The U.S. will sanction Turkey if it takes delivery of S400s.”

Meanwhile, Ankara is also facing increasing pressure regarding the continued detention of American citizens. The trial of Metin Topuz, an interpreter for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Istanbul, began last month and will resume in May. He is charged, along with colleague Mete Cantürk, with spying and seeking to overthrow Turkey’s government.

"Erdoğan plans to inflict misery on these innocent people until he gets what he wants out of the United States," Senator Wicker wrote in a Washington Post op-ed about his bill on Wednesday. "These men are all innocent. Not only have they lost irreplaceable time with their families, but the physical and psychological toll of their ordeal also means they may never be the same once they regain their liberty."

Senator Dick Durbin was also among the bill's supporters. “These arbitrary arrests are yet another example of Turkey’s deteriorating democracy and respect for human rights under autocrat President Erdoğan,” he said in the statement.  “That Erdoğan continues to jail a U.S. citizen and Turkish staff that work for our consulates, not to mention prop up Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, warrant greater action by the Trump administration.”

The Senate bills arrive the day after Erdoğan met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and again asserted that Ankara’s S-400 purchase was a done deal. On Wednesday, Turkish pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah reported that Erdoğan also suggested completing the S-400 deal before the scheduled July delivery.

These issues are likely to spur heated discussions at next week’s annual conference on U.S.-Turkey relations in Washington, to be attended by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Turkish Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, and other top officials.

Facing greater tensions with the United States, an economic recession and losing control of Turkey’s two largest cities in the country’s March 31 local elections, Turkey’s president has been juggling several crises at once.