The hearings on Capitol Hill last week with U.S. State Department officials clearly indicated that the U.S. Congress and Donald Trump administration do not see eye to eye on Turkey.
In recent months, U.S. lawmakers increased their attempts to punish or pressure Turkey over the imprisonment of American citizens, such as pastor Andrew Brunson, and used fifth generation F-35 warplanes as a bargaining chip.
Another lawmaker, Senator Chris Van Hollen, a democrat from Maryland, succeeded in placing additional sanctions on F-35 deliveries within the U.S. State Department draft appropriations bill, requiring Turkey to stop the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system.
The U.S. Defense Department is already unhappy about these congressional attempts. One U.S. defense official told an American TV channel last month that U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis was personally engaging lawmakers to remove anti-Turkey language from the defense authorization bill.
The State Department, on the other hand, earlier this year convinced Senator Jeanne Shaheen and others that Turkish courts might have released Brunson in May, and in return Shaheen retracted the then-intended sanctions. Their expectations proved to be fruitless. As a Turkish judge later remanded Brunson, senators came up with fresher and bolder sanction ideas like the F-35s. Their intent was hitting Turkey where it would hurt.
Indeed, it could hurt Turkey, but it also complicates and has a broader impact on the F-35 program, of which Turkey is not only a customer but also a production partner. While Trump and Mattis are trying to convince President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to purchase more American weaponry, the U.S. Congress is busy preventing Ankara from buying up to 100 F-35s, which are essential to maintain the program.
It was evident in two congressional hearings last week that the Trump administration was diverging from Capitol Hill. During a hearing at the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Van Hollen fired one question after another at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pressuring him to acknowledge his opinion on the F-35 issue. Pompeo deferred the questions with the usual talking points, warning his counterpart about the risks associated with the S-400s systems. Van Hollen, frustrated at the response, asked for a more definitive statement from him on the F-35s, though Pompeo maintained his diplomatic attitude, "It's a very complex situation, Senator," he said. "We're certainly reviewing it. We've spoken to the Turks a great length."
Another senior State Department official made it clear that the administration did not need sanctions against Turkey.
Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell attempted to calm the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by underlining the fact that Turkey's two F-35s, which were officially delivered last month, would have stayed in the U.S. until 2020. There was no need for Congress to rush legislation about it.
Mitchell went on against the sanctions, emphasizing that the State Department had enough authority to make its own decision without additional mandatory legislation.
He said: "We have watched developments on the Hill, we know some of what's being considered on F-35. We believe that we have existing legal authorities that would allow us to withhold transfer under certain circumstances, including national security concerns. Given that, we believe that we continue to have the time and ability to ensure Turkey does not move forward on S-400 before having to take a decision on F-35." After these exchanges, Shaheen and Senator Lindsey Graham traveled to Ankara to meet Erdoğan. Following the meeting, both senators made positive statements about their expectations for Brunson and the importance of bilateral relations.
Shaheen's tweet was particularly attention grabbing. She said Erdoğan was receptive to her concerns:
"I'm in Turkey to help build a constructive dialogue with President Erdoğan on the cases of Americans wrongfully arrested and other issues of mutual concern. President Erdoğan was receptive to my and @LindseyGrahamSC's concerns."
Brunson is scheduled to appear at court on July 18. His possible release, pending trial, could change to trajectory of Turkish-American relations for the better. Yet, there are risks. If the U.S. Congress begins to think that its draft sanctions delivered his release, we could see more and more draft sanctions against Ankara for other issues. Congress should be aware; Turkish officials, who have a very nationalistic constituency, could be less receptive to these demands in the future.