US Senate defense bill would bar Turkey from buying F-35 jets due to row over jailed pastor

A US Senate committee passed its version of a $716 billion defense policy bill on Thursday, including a measure to prevent Turkey from purchasing Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets.

The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, from Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Senator Thom Tillis, would remove Turkey from the F-35 program over its detention of US citizen Andrew Brunson, Shaheen’s office said.

Brunson, a Christian pastor who could be jailed for up to 35 years, denied terrorism and spying charges in a Turkish court this month. He has been in pre-trial detention since 2016.

According to a report by Reuters, it also faults NATO ally Turkey for its agreement with Russia in December to buy S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries. Ankara wants the system to boost its defense capabilities amid threats from Kurdish and Islamist militants at home and conflicts across its borders in Syria and Iraq.

According to Shaheen’s office, the intention to purchase the Russian system is sanctionable under US law. “There is tremendous hesitancy [about] transferring sensitive F35 planes and technology to a nation who has purchased a Russian air defense system designed to shoot these very planes down,” said Senator Shaheen.

In response, Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hami Aksoy said on Friday that Ankara will respond if the US suspends delivery of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets to Turkey. The bill passed by the US Senate committee is “against the spirit of our alliance with the US,” Aksoy told reporters in a press conference.

“Some senators in the US have drafted bills to prevent the transfer of F-35 fighter aircraft to our country. In this bill, the F-35’s shipment is tied to the ending of Pastor Brunson’s detention and giving up the S-400 purchase. These are different issues. One should not put apples and pears in the same basket,” he said.

 

“This is not a program managed solely by the US. It is a multinational program, and we expect everybody to fulfill their obligations,” Aksoy said, noting that Turkey has fulfilled its obligations regarding the F-35 program. If the US takes such steps, “we will have to respond,” the spokesperson said.

Turkey plans to buy more than 100 of the F-35 jets and has had talks with Washington about the purchase of Patriot missiles. Lockheed Martin is planning to deliver the first F-35 fighter jet to Turkey on June 21.

Relations between Ankara and Washington have been strained over a host of issues in recent months, including US policy in Syria and a number of legal cases against Turkish and US nationals being held in the two countries.

The move to buy S-400s, which are incompatible with NATO systems, has unnerved NATO member countries, which are already wary of Moscow’s military presence in the Middle East, prompting NATO officials to warn Turkey of unspecified consequences.

The House of Representatives also passed its version of the legislation earlier on Thursday. The Senate must still pass its version of the bill and the two must be reconciled before a final compromise bill can come up for a vote in both the House and Senate later this year.

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