Turkey Releases American Pastor But It Doesn't Mean They're Getting Their F-35s

U.S. legislators have more requirements that need to be satisfied before they'll stop trying to block delivery of the jets.

Turkish Ministry of National Defense

After two years in Turkish custody, American pastor Andrew Brunson is a free man and able to return home. In that time, he became a central figure in a diplomatic dispute with the United States over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system and deliveries of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to the Turkish Air Force. Unfortunately, relations between the U.S. and Turkey remain strained and Congress has put other obstacles in place to try to prevent the Turkish government from getting the stealth fighters.

On Oct. 12, 2018, a Turkish court convicted Brunson of terrorism-related charges, which he and his lawyers maintain are politically motivated, but released him, taking into account time served and good behavior. In 2016, Turkey’s government had arrested the evangelical pastor, who had been in the country for more than two decades, as part of a crackdown following a coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” Brunson had said in his last remarks to the court in his defense before the verdict came out. “This is the day our family has been praying for – I am delighted to be on my way home to the United States,” he said in a statement after his release.

The latest defense policy bill for the 2019 Fiscal Year, also known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which President Donald Trump signed into law in August 2018, specifically name-checks Brunson as a reason for telling the Pentagon that it cannot facilitate the delivery of F-35s until various conditions are met. By the end of the year, by law, Secretary of Defense Mattis has to submit a report detailing the potential risks posed by Turkey’s plans to operate the stealth fighters alongside the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, as well as potential threats to other military systems the U.S. supplies to the Turkish government.

The review must also include an assessment of what would happen if Turkey, which produces a significant number of components for F-35s, were to get kicked out of the Joint Strike Fighter program. Lastly, Congress wants the Pentagon to draw up a list of alternatives to the S-400 that the United States or other NATO members could offer to the Turkish military, despite repeated failures to pitch a Western system so far.

But Brunson’s release is unlikely to change this situation. The U.S. and Turkish governments reportedly reached a deal that would see the pastor released from prison in exchange for the relaxing of various economic sanctions, including those that have sent Turkey’s national currency, the Lira, plummeting in value.

Brunson is “just one of many Americans, U.S. State Department employees, and Western nationals that that [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan continues to hold hostage,” Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Oct. 12, 2018. “There is still work to be done and President Erdoğan has a long way to go before acting like the NATO ally we expect him to be.”

It’s not entirely clear who Sasse might be referring to, but the NDAA also specifically mentions Serkan Golge. A scientist who had worked with NASA and who became a U.S. citizen in 2010, Golge also got arrested in the post-coup period in 2016 for links to Islamic cleric and former Turkish political figure Fethullah Gülen.

President Erdoğan has declared Gülen, a former political ally who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, to be the mastermind behind the abortive push to unseat him and has sought his extradition. The U.S. government says it has not received enough evidence to support the charges against him. It has long appeared that Brunson and Golge were to be bargaining chips to exchange for Gülen.

Ralf Hirschberger/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

U.S.-Turkey ties are still cold over the U.S. government’s support for Kurdish forces in Syria, which the Turkish government sees as a direct threat to its own regional interests. There is also the matter of an entirely unfounded conspiracy theory that says the United States, or at least senior officials, were among those behind the 2016 coup attempt. In August 2018, this prompted a group of activist lawyers tied to Erdoğan to demand the Turkish government arrest various U.S. military personnel and conduct a raid on the American portions of Incirlik Air Base to search for more evidence. So far, there is no indication that any law enforcement organization in the country has responded to those calls for action.

None of these political machinations get to the core issue of concerns about whether the Russians could obtain sensitive information about the F-35 via selling the S-400s to Turkey and then having to train Turkish forces in their operation. Other members of NATO have also criticized the plan since the Russian surface-to-air missile systems do not meet the Alliances various standards and requirements for interoperability between member states.

Vitaly Kuzmin

A transporter-erector-launcher associated with Russia's S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

As already noted, Brunson’s release does not eliminate Congress’ demand for a report from Mattis on the situation within 90 days. The law also does not say that legislators can’t pass additional measures regardless of the Defense Secretary’s conclusions. This could include blocking the Pentagon from facilitating the F-35 deliveries indefinitely or cutting Turkey off from the essential U.S.-based Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), spare parts, and other sustainment support. Without access to the ALIS network, the Turkish Air Force’s jets wouldn’t have any real combat capability. Turkey began receiving its first F-35s in June 2018, but these aircraft are based in the United States to train the initial cadre of pilots.

Mattis, for his part, has noted the increasingly authoritarian attitude of the Turkish government, but has opposed blocking F-35 deliveries or booting Turkey out of the Joint Strike Fighter program entirely, largely for pragmatic reasons. He has publicly stated that the latter course of action would delay the delivery of between 50 and 75 of the jets to the United States and other foreign buyers as it would take between 18 and 24 months to find companies to fill the resulting supply chain gaps.

That conclusion is almost certain to make its way into his report to Congress and could set the stage for a tertiary spat between the Pentagon and legislators over the F-35 issue. Turkish officials have issued their own threats to retaliate in some fashion in response to any U.S. government action to block the delivery of the jets, as well.

It remains to be seen how the U.S.-Turkish dispute over the F-35s and the S-400s will evolve in the coming months. Though apparently unrelated, the release of pastor Brunson in exchange for the elimination of certain sanctions does suggest Turkey may be increasingly willing to negotiate some sort of compromise.

Correction: The original headline said that the Turkish authorities had released pastor Brunson from prison. He had actually been under house arrest prior to his conviction, which could have sent him to prison in Turkey.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com