Rift Grows Between Congress And Pentagon Over Weapons Transfer To Turkey

Fate of American pastor and purchase of Russian SAMs among concerns raised by lawmakers.

Turkey received its first two F-35 fighter jets on Thursday. The Muslim nation and NATO partner has ordered 100 of the aircraft. Lockheed Martin conducted a rollout ceremony at Fort Worth, Texas to commemorate the milestone. From there, the two jets will follow-on to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona where they will pair up with Turkish pilots and maintenance personnel for what a Pentagon spokesman described as “flight academics.”

Despite the rollout, it could take more than a year before the planes are sent to Turkey. This is due to the extensive training period Turkish pilots and support personnel will be required to undergo while in the United States.

The F-35 is a fifth generation fighter-bomber equipped with highly advanced avionics and stealth properties. Much of the technology incorporated into the F-35 is top secret. Russia and China have also developed fighter planes incorporating stealth technology stolen from the United States. But despite the theft, experts consider the F-35 to be far superior to the Russian and Chinese models.

The transfer of sensitive technology to Turkey has rankled members of Congress, who are disturbed by the unhinged actions and statements of its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Senate lawmakers have sought to stop the sale citing Turkey’s unlawful detention of American pastor, Andrew Brunson, on trumped up terrorism charges, and Turkey’s pending acquisition of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, which are not compatible with NATO platforms. Some lawmakers have questioned whether Turkey can be trusted to safeguard the F-35’s technology and raised the disquieting prospect of Turkey allowing the Russians to have access to the plane.

The Senate is moving to block the sale through language incorporated in the National Defense Authorization Act, a mammoth defense spending bill that also sets guidelines for defense policy. The Senate version of the bill expresses concern over Turkey’s illegal detention of Andrew Brunson and Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400. The bill also calls on Secretary of Defense James Mattis to submit to Congress “a plan to remove the Government of the Republic of Turkey from participation in the F-35 program,” and to list “steps required to prohibit the transfer of any F-35 aircraft currently owned and operated, by the Government of the Republic of Turkey, from the territory of the United States.”

The Senate and House versions of the NDAA have to reconcile before the bill is passed along to President Donald Trump for signing. Despite some differences between the Senate and House versions, there appears to be wide bipartisan support for blocking the transfer of the F-35 to Turkey. This rare bipartisan agreement on Turkey is unsurprising even in today’s charged political climate.

Turkey’s authoritarian and increasingly paranoid leader has given Congress ample reason to be wary. In addition to the S-400 acquisition and the detention of Andrew Brunson, Turkey has repeatedly pursued foreign policies that are inconsistent with NATO’s. It has invaded two of its neighbors, waged war against Kurdish militia fighters allied with NATO, threatened to flood NATO countries with Muslim migrants from Iraq and Syria, circumvented sanctions against Iran, and even supported the emerging Islamic State in its nascent state. 

Turkey’s deleterious actions have been met with equally shrill and belligerent rhetoric from its leaders. When Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that he would move to shut down mosques and expel radical foreign-funded clerics, Erdoğan warned that Kurz’s actions would bring the world “toward a war between the cross and the crescent.” That language mimics the rhetoric employed by ISIS, al-Qaida and other radical Islamic terrorist groups.

Turkey’s conspiracy prone leaders routinely spew the most outrageous conspiracy theories which are often laced with deeply anti-Semitic overtones. Erdoğan often compares Israel to Nazi Germany, claimed that Israel has committed genocide against the Palestinians, alleged that Israel engineered the coup that saw the overthrow of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi, and accused the international “interest rate lobby,” a euphemism for rich Jews, of fomenting the 2013 Gezi Park riots.

The most recent conspiracy gem emerging from Ankara involves Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who claimed that this year’s Eurovision song contest was rigged by “imperialists” who engineered the Israeli win to “sow strife between religions.”

Despite Turkey’s deeply problematic behavior, there are those within Washington who are still advocating for the sale and chief among them is Defense Secretary Mattis. Mattis has been engaging with Congressional leaders in an effort to have them remove language from the NDAA that seeks to block the sale. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been more equivocal. He has raised concerns about Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 and can act to block the sale under legislation recently passed by Congress that calls for sanctions against purchasers of certain Russian military platforms, including the S-400. In a May appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Pompeo acknowledged that some of Turkey’s actions were cause for concern and raised some eyebrows when he stated that he wants Turkey to “rejoin NATO.”

Mattis’ advocacy on behalf of the paranoid Islamists running Turkey is both perplexing and troubling. Turkey’s drift out of NATO’s orbit and into the orbit of America’s strategic enemies should be cause for great concern. The transfer of sensitive U.S. technology to the Erdoğan regime under the current circumstances would represent the epitome of foolhardiness and would end up costing America dearly. Mattis would be wise to defer to Congress on this one.