The U.S.-Turkey standoff over Ankara’s plan to buy advanced missiles from Russia will likely escalate in the coming days, according to regional experts, who say President Trump failed to face the issue head on at a meeting with Turkey’s leader over the Group of 20 meeting in Japan over the weekend, widening the stage for a diplomatic clash between the two NATO allies.
Administration officials insist Mr. Trump clearly “expressed concern” over Turkey’s planned purchase of the Russian-made S-400 system during his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 gathering.
They also say the White House hasn’t backed away from its months-old threat to sanction Turkey and blacklist it from access to America’s next-generation F-35 fighter jet if Mr. Erdogan goes through with the S-400 purchase.
But Mr. Erdogan appears to have gotten an entirely different message from his meeting with Mr. Trump on Saturday. The Turkish president told reporters afterwards that Mr. Trump had assured him there would be no retaliatory U.S. sanctions when the Russian S-400s are delivered to Turkey by mid-July.
“We have heard from him personally that this would not happen,” Mr. Erdogan said, according to Reuters. “We are strategic partners with the United States. As strategic partners, nobody has the right to meddle in Turkey’s sovereign rights. Everyone should know this.”
Administration critics pounced on the exchange Monday, with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel asserting that Mr. Trump’s “reported promise not to sanction Turkey if the purchase of Russian weapons jeopardizes NATO and our own national security.”
“Congress, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the rest of the United States government have been clear: if Turkey gets the S-400, it should be kicked out of the F-35 program; and it will face sanctions,” the New York Democrat said in a statement.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and usually an ally of the president, noted that the Senate has already passed legislation requiring retaliatory sanctions and banning the sale of F-35s to Turkey if Ankara activates the Russian missile system.
Mr. Graham cast doubt on the notion on Mr. Erdogan’s account of how Saturday’s meeting had gone, or that Mr. Trump offered to drop the sanctions threat.
“I doubt if that conversation occurred,” the South Carolina Republican told CBS News on Sunday. “It’s impossible under our law.”
Mr. Trump had offered a range of comments to reporters during a brief appearance alongside Mr. Erdogan on Saturday. The U.S. president said the two sides were still “discussing” the S-400 issue. He also broadly blamed the former Obama administration for creating a “complicated situation” in which Turkey felt it had no choice but to purchase the Russian-made missile system.
Mr. Trump claimed the Obama White House had refused to sell Turkey an American-made Patriot missile system, which is roughly equivalent to the Russian S-400. While the previous administration did, in fact, offer to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey in 2013, Mr. Trump claimed that Mr. Erdogan “wasn’t allowed by the Obama administration to buy them until after he made a deal to buy other missiles.”
“So [Mr. Erdogan] buys the other missile and then, all of a sudden, [Obama administration officials] say, ‘Well, you can now buy our missile,’” said Mr. Trump.
“You can’t do business that way. It’s not good,” the president said, adding that he and Mr. Erdogan are now trying to work through the situation.
Private analysts say the Osaka exchange could mean more bilateral friction down the road.
“President Trump really fudged this with President Erdogan and the bottom line is that the issue is not resolved,” said Bulent Aliriza, who heads the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. “Clearly Erdogan thinks that he struck a deal with President Trump and that what Trump is saying counts, rather than what officials below Trump have said or what Congress has in place in terms of legislation,” he said.
“We’re actually in a more dangerous position now because Erdogan has been led into believing Turkey can still get the F-35 if it buys the S-400 and, more importantly, he’s gone and said to his people that Trump is supportive on this issue,” the analyst added in an interview Monday.
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