Trump restricts delivery of F-35s to Turkey, deepening rift with NATO ally

Transfer of fighter jets halted over Ankara’s interest in Russian air defense system amid diplomatic crisis sparked by detained American pastor

Illustrative photo of an F-35 fighter jet. (US DoD/Staff Sgt. Devin Doskey, US Air Force)
Illustrative photo of an F-35 fighter jet. (US DoD/Staff Sgt. Devin Doskey, US Air Force)

US President Donald Trump has restricted the delivery of 100 F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, exacerbating the strain between the two NATO allies over Ankara’s continued detention of an American pastor.

Trump on Monday signed a defense authorization act that prohibits the delivery of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to Turkey if it buys Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

The law requires a review of US-Turkey relations, including the US military’s use of Incirlik Air Base, and a risk assessment associated with delivering the stealth fighter jets.

Turkey has been a partner in the international consortium that financed the F-35 since 2002, and plans to purchase 100 of the stealth fighter jets from the US at a reported $1.2 billion.

Ties between the US and Turkey were already fraught over Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish forces, but have been further strained by the trial of American pastor Andrew Brunson on terror-related charges linked to a failed coup attempt in the country two years ago.

Brunson has been held in Turkey since October 2016, and could face a jail term of 35 years if convicted. Trump has described his detention as a “total disgrace” and urged Ankara to free him immediately.

Andrew Craig Brunson, an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, arrives at his house in Izmir, Turkey, July 25, 2018. (Emre Tazegul/AP)

After Brunson’s appeal was rejected by a Turkish court earlier in August, Trump responded by doubling steel and aluminum tariffs on the country, causing its currency to plummet.

The diplomatic rift was further deepened after Turkey, despite being a NATO ally, entered into an understanding to buy Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system.

Such a move would defy US sanctions on Moscow, and Turkey’s increasingly cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has alarmed both the US and the European Union.

On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote in The New York Times that unless Washington can “reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect,” Turkey will “start looking for new friends and allies.”

(FILE) In this photo taken on July 11, 2018 US President Donald Trump (L) talks to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) as they arrive for the NATO summit, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels (AFP PHOTO / POOL / Tatyana ZENKOVICH)

The warning came after Erdogan held a phone call with Putin to discuss economic and trade issues, as well as the Syria crisis.

Turkey’s dialogue with Russia has led some to question its reliability as a NATO partner, and even whether it should remain in the alliance.

Key air base

Incirlik, a Turkish air base in southern Turkey, just 70 miles (110 kilometers) from the border with war-torn Syria, has been a frequent pawn during decades of ups and downs in US-Turkey relations.

Incirlik’s location relative to the Middle East makes it a key strategic asset for the US military and for NATO, and the United States until recently flew bombing runs from there as it fought the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Separately, the facility is thought to hold a stockpile of about 50 American nuclear bombs.

A US Air Force plane takes off from the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey, September 1, 2013. (AP/Vadim Ghirda, File)

The arrangement works for Turkey too, as the US military provides Turks with intelligence and drone surveillance over the border region, and helps Ankara monitor the outlawed PKK.

Last year, Muharrem Ince, the main opposition candidate in Turkey’s presidential election, threatened to shut Incirlik unless the US extradited Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Muslim preacher Ankara blames for an attempted coup in 2016.

Ince went on to lose the election to Erdogan by a large margin, but Incirlik remains a key issue.

Following the coup attempt, the Turkish base commander at Incirlik was arrested on suspicion of complicity in the plot.

And according to Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, pro-Erdogan lawyers have filed a lawsuit calling for the arrest of US troops at Incirlik on similar suspicions.

Both sides stand to lose if US-Turkey military relations go south, but experts say it would hurt Turkey more.

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