Turkey Again Hints at Ousting US Troops from Bases Over Possible Sanctions

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A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II departs Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Jan. 20, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Kristan Campbell)
A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II departs Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Jan. 20, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Kristan Campbell)

For the second time in six months, Turkey's foreign minister has hinted the country could cut off U.S. troop access to two key bases if the U.S. imposes sanctions over Turkey's purchase of the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency this week that if sanctions are introduced, "Incirlik and Kürecik air bases can be brought to the agenda."

"Congress members must understand that it is not possible to get anywhere with sanctions," he said, according to a translation.

His comments came days after U.S. lawmakers released the conference version of fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which encourages President Trump to hold Turkey accountable for purchasing the S-400, known to Moscow as the "F-35 killer."

Related: The Pentagon Isn't Sure What to Do with Turkey's Undelivered F-35s

"The President should implement the Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act of 2017 (Public Law 115--44; 131 Stat. 886) by imposing and applying sanctions," the bill states.

In 2017, Turkey firmed up a verbal agreement with Russia to purchase the S-400. And after months of efforts to dissuade the NATO ally from buying the missiles, the Pentagon and White House officials in July announced Turkey was out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program as a result.

Turkey had formally taken delivery of its first set of S-400 system equipment -- showing multiple videos of the delivery to the Murted military air base northwest of Ankara -- that same month.

"The F-35 cannot co-exist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities," the White House said in a statement. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord at the time explained that prolonged proximity between the F-35 and S-400 systems might allow the SAM to "understand the profile" of the jet.

Following the announcement, Çavuşoğlu spoke out against the decision to remove it from the Joint Strike Fighter program, as well as the looming possibility the Trump administration was weighing sanctions on the country.

"If the U.S. shows a hostile attitude to us, we will take a step against it," he told Turkish TV station TGRT Haber July 22. The foreign minister said could mean curtailing operations or expelling U.S. forces at Incirlik Air Base, or limiting coalition operations at Kürecik radar station, he said.

Incirlik has played a key role in air operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In 2016, the base went dark for roughly a week during a failed coup attempt in the country which shutdown the airspace, forcing U.S. Central Command to adjust its operations in the air war against ISIS.

According to the bill, lawmakers will not allow the F-35As once destined for Turkey to be transferred unless that country gets rid of its S-400s and associated equipment and promises never to purchase or use the Russian-made weapon again.

Congress said it would "support" the U.S. purchase of these jets, according to a joint statement provided with the bill Tuesday. The aircraft have been stationed at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where international pilot training is conducted.

"The conferees ... encourage the Secretary of Defense to maximize the procurement quantity of Turkish F-35A aircraft associated with Lots 12, 13, or 14 during fiscal year 2020 using the additional funds authorized in section 4101 of this Act," according to the statement.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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