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US offer of F-35s falls flat as Turkey clings to Russian missiles

A delegation of US Congress members has failed to convince Ankara to give up on acquiring its Russian missile defense system in return for fulfillment of its order of American fighter jets.
Two U.S. Air Force F-22 stealth fighter jets are about to receive fuel mid-air from a KC-135 refueling plane over Norway en route to a joint training exercise with Norway's growing fleet of F-35 jets August 15, 2018.  REUTERS/Andrea Shalal - RC1BFCD5DE40

ANKARA — Turkey flatly rejected a proposal today by visiting US Congress members that it abandon its purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missiles in order to receive the F-35 fighter planes that it had ordered from the United States.

Speaking on a visit to Lithuania, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the purchase of the Russian missiles would go through: “We have to protect our airspace. This is a must for us.”

The deal has annoyed Washington because the S-400 is not compatible with existing NATO missile systems. American legislators also support President Donald Trump’s demands for Turkey to drop the prosecution of Andrew Brunson, a US pastor who is under house arrest in Izmir while standing trial on charges of assisting Islamic and Kurdish militant groups.

Congress recently passed a bill that threatens to halt the sale of the F-35s to Turkey. Three members of the US Congress, led by Michael Turner, told Turkish legislators on Monday that Turkey should drop its missile purchase to win congressional support for the supply of the F-35s.

“We are a partner in the F-35 program,” Cavusoglu said Tuesday, adding that parts of the plane are made in Turkey. In a blunt reference to what has been coming out of Washington, he said, “If they say they can do anything they want, as in cowboy movies, they will get a response.”

A strange story preoccupied the Turkish media on Tuesday: that the United States was setting up radar bases in northern Syria with the twin aims of monitoring air traffic in the region and providing protection for the Syrian Kurds in whose area the bases are being erected.

No recognized US or Turkish official has confirmed such installations. The reports were based on videos circulating on television and social media that showed what appeared to be American soldiers setting up radar attennae and erecting offices and living quarters. Two officers with North American accents speak on camera, but the name tags on their chests are out of focus. One officer says the aim of the radar is that any aircraft flying in the vicinity “can be controlled.” A second officer says the radar will enable the US forces to “deliver our airpower assets.”

Curiously, the videos have no clear origin. Numerous media outlets ran them, or screen-grabs from them, but nobody was credited with shooting the video. With justifiable caution, CNNTurk reported, “It has been alleged that the US is setting up an air defense and electronic radar system in the territory that is under PYD/YPG control in Syria,” referring to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party and its militant wing, the People's Protection Units.

Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist group. Washington has found it an effective ally in its fight against the Islamic State in Syria, but the YPG’s close association with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Turkish Kurd militant group, has long caused friction between the United States and Turkey. The United States classifies the PKK as a terrorist group, as does the EU, but has declined to put the YPG in that category.

Hurriyet splashed pictures from the videos on its front page with the headline: “American radar to the YPG front line.” The longer story on its inside pages was headlined “Air defense shield for the PYD.” The paper quoted an unnamed security source as saying that Turkey was “looking into” the radar base issue, but neither confirming nor denying the veracity of the videos.

The lack of confirmation did not stop commentators from speculating. The online editor of the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper said the United States was creating “a new no-fly-zone in northern Syria, the same tactic used in the 1991 occupation of Iraq, and has already started to install advanced radar systems in Kobani and Hasakah.”

Hurriyet quoted terrorism specialist Abdullah Agar as saying, “If these allegations are true, the US is setting up this system for the security of its own military assets in the region. However, it is noteworthy that the US made this move after the Turkish military and MIT [intelligence agency] conducted operations that targeted PYD and PKK and killed Ismail Ozden, the Sincar representative of the [PKK] terror organization.” 

Agar seemed to be saying that in future, Ankara would have to coordinate its find-and-kill operations in Northern Iraq and Syria with Washington.

On the domestic front, liberals were appalled by the government’s decision to crack down on a little-known group called the Saturday Mothers. These family members of people who disappeared in the 1990s had been holding demonstrations in central Istanbul on Saturday mornings in a bid to get the state to account for their loved ones’ kidnapping and murder.

The protests had always been peaceful — until Saturday, when the police sprayed tear gas, fired plastic bullets and manhandled the protesters into custody. Photographs showed the "Mothers" fought back, wrestling and shouting at the officers.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu accused the demonstrators of having links to the PKK. “They try to create victimization out of motherhood in order to mask terrorism,” he told the press. Referring to those who disappeared, Soylu said, “Weren’t they members of terrorist groups?”

On Monday, the Saturday Mothers condemned the minister in a press conference at the Human Rights Association's offices. “Soylu’s statement aims to distort the facts, undermine the legitimacy of the Saturday protests and cover up the state’s responsibility,” they said in a statement.

The rights group's Meral Cildir told Al-Monitor that in 2011, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister, spent two hours with a delegation of the Mothers. He was quoted as telling them, “We will heal your pain.” Cildir said Soylu’s attempt to link the Saturday Mothers with terrorists shows the new Erdogan government “will not tolerate any kind of protest.”

Hanim Tosun, the widow of Fehmi Tosun, who disappeared in 1995, pointed out that the Mothers had protested 700 times. “Did we hurt anyone?” she asked.

Algan Hacaloglu, who served as minister for human rights in the 1990s, recalled examining the file of one of the most famous “disappeared,” Hasan Ocak, who was seized after a pro-Alevi demonstration in Istanbul in 1995 and was found buried 58 days later.

“Hasan Ocak’s file said he was strangled with rope and died under torture,” Hacaloglu told Cumhurriyet newspaper. “But the official letter given to me that was signed by the interior minister of the time, Nahit Mentese; the general director of security, Mehmet Agar' and the then-governor of İstanbul, Hayri Kozakcioglu, said Ocak was never even arrested, he was never on the police wanted list and the government was not responsible for his death.”

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