Three US senators move to block F-35 transfers to Turkey over deteriorating democracy

Three US senators introduced a measure on Thursday aimed at blocking the transfer of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to Turkey, a NATO ally and one of nine partner nations involved in producing the high-tech, radar-evading aircraft.

According to a report by Reuters, the bill, sponsored by Republicans James Lankford and Thom Tillis and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, comes at a time of deteriorating relations between the United States and Turkey, which supported the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but has become increasingly worried about US backing for Kurdish militants in north Syria.

The three senators, in introducing the bill, issued a statement expressing concern that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had embarked on a “path of reckless governance and disregard for the rule of law.”

“Turkey’s strategic decisions regrettably fall more and more out of line with, and at times in contrast to, US interests. These factors make the transfer of sensitive F-35 technology and cutting-edge capabilities to Erdoğan’s regime increasingly risky,” Lankford said in the statement.

The three senators also voiced concern about Turkey’s detention of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, a long-time resident of Turkey who was jailed during Erdoğan’s crackdown launched in the aftermath of a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016 to target alleged members of the Gülen movement.

“President Erdoğan’s choice to take hostages and imprison innocent Americans, to try to gain leverage over the US, is egregious and unlawful,” Shaheen said in the statement.

Turkey plans to buy more than 100 of the F-35 aircraft. Turkish companies have been involved in producing parts for the fighter, and Ankara is scheduled to begin receiving its first aircraft within a year. The bill would restrict the transfer of F-35s to Turkey and limit Ankara from receiving intellectual property or technical data needed to maintain and support the fighters. It would allow the US president to waive the restrictions by certifying Turkey is not taking steps that would undermine NATO security and not wrongfully detaining US citizens.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday warned of the “seriousness of US concerns” in a meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in Brussels over Ankara’s decision to buy Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries, which are not compatible with NATO’s defenses.

“The secretary underscored the seriousness of US concerns … if they go ahead,” a senior US official said after a meeting between Pompeo and Çavusoglu on the sidelines of a NATO foreign ministers meeting. “He asked Çavuşoğlu to closely consider NATO interoperable systems,” the official added.

During the meeting Pompeo also raised concerns about the detention of Pastor Brunson, who has been in jail since December 2016, and other Americans detained by Turkey.

Turkey signed an agreement with Russia for S-400 missiles, reportedly worth $2.5 billion, in late December. Turkey’s purchase of the systems has unnerved NATO member countries, which are already wary of Moscow’s military presence in the Middle East, as the system is incompatible with the alliance’s systems.

NATO officials have warned Turkey about unspecified consequences of purchasing the S-400, but Turkish President Erdoğan has said ties with NATO remain strong.

Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the AKP government along with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15. On December 13, 2017 the Justice Ministry announced that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced on April 18, 2018 that the Turkish government had jailed 77,081 people between July 15, 2016 and April 11, 2018 over alleged links to the Gülen movement.

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