US defence chief nominee: Turkey's drift away from NATO "disheartening"
Mark Esper, the nominee to be the new US defence secretary, said on Tuesday that he was disheartened to see Turkey drift away from the NATO alliance in recent years and again warned Ankara over its purchase a Russian S-400 missile defence system. "It is very disheartening to see how they have drifted over the past several years," Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, referring to Turkey having been part of the Western alliance since the 1950s. "Their decision on the S-400 is the wrong one and it is disappointing," Esper said.
Turkey began to receive S-400 components last week. The likely new defence chief repeated that Turkey cannot be part of the advanced F-35 fighter jet programme and also have the Russian S-400. President Donald Trump on Tuesday said the US and Turkey were in a "very tough situation" after Ankara's decision to purchase the Russian missile system, which would lead to the country being kicked out of the fighter jet programme.
But Trump sounded more sympathetic to Turkey's reasons, repeating previous comments – also used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – that Ankara was "forced" to buy the Russian missile and blaming the Obama administration for allegedly refusing to sell Patriot missiles to Ankara. "We have a situation where Turkey is very good with us, very good. We are now telling Turkey because you have really been forced to buy another missile system we are not going to sell you the F-35 fighters jets," Trump said at the White House.
US lawmakers critical of Turkey recently released letters showing the US was willing to sell Ankara the Patriot missiles during the Obama years, something defence officials have also said. The president, who has been pushing for the sales of the F-35, noted that the defence giant behind the aircraft, Lockheed Martin, would be "unhappy" and bemoaned the economic consequences of blocking the sale.
"They are now prohibited from buying over 100 planes," Trump said. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus indicated that sanctions against Turkey were also "in the process" of being worked out, under a law, known as CAATSA, that requires Washington to punish those who engage in certain military transactions with Russia.
"We don't preview the sanctions in advance," Ortagus said. The Pentagon has already started steps to remove Turkey from the F-35 programme, after Congress moved to block the sale of the plane to Ankara if it took hold of the S-400. "You can either have the S-400 or the F-35. You cannot have both," Esper said, adding that the Russian system would "undermine" the fighter jet.
This is not the first time differences have emerged between the president and the Pentagon. His decision to withdraw from Syria prompted the resignation of Jim Mattis, the previous secretary of defence. (dpa)