Key senators indicated Friday that Turkey’s release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson could help ease tensions that have threatened the sale of F-35 joint strike fighters to Ankara.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., spearheaded legislation suspending transfers of the jets over the imprisonment of the pastor on terrorism charges, and said his release after a court hearing Friday was a positive development.
The detention, along with Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian S-400 missile defense system, had outraged Tillis and other lawmakers including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who targeted Ankara’s plans to purchase 100 of the F-35s and manufacture components of the aircraft.
“We pursued a number of diplomatic and policy channels that kept the pressure on. The Turkish government ultimately made the right decision, which will undoubtedly help improve U.S.-Turkey relations moving forward,” Tillis said in a statement.
That sentiment was echoed by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said it was “an important step towards mending U.S.-Turkish relations.”
Brunson was released to the United States and set to return home after two years of detention in Turkey after he was swept up following an attempted coup within Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
[Opinion: Pastor Andrew Brunson's release is a good step, but remain cautious of Turkey]
Tillis and Shaheen cosponsored a measure in the National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Trump in August that suspended the F-35 transfers until Defense Secretary Jim Mattis submits an assessment to Congress on the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
The Pentagon said Friday that Mattis has not yet submitted the report, which is due to lawmakers in mid-November and supposed to address the F-35 program and the S-400 missile defense system.
Turkey has ceremonially received its first two jets but they are not scheduled to be transferred until next summer. The jets will remain at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona while Turkish pilots and crew undergo required training.
With Brunson free, the S-400 may be the biggest stumbling block for F-35 sales to the NATO ally. The system would not be compatible with NATO defenses and could strengthen Ankara’s relationship with Moscow.
“The provision of the NDAA is still the law, and DoD still needs to submit its report to Congress, which includes an assessment of Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system from Russia,” Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin wrote in an email to the Washington Examiner.