Turkey might receive its first S-400 air defense missile systems as early as June, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has said.
The first delivery was previously set for July but Russia announced it could supply the first S-400 as early as June at the latest bilateral discussions.
Akar's remarks came during a meeting with the Turkish media on the sidelines of the 37th Annual Conference on U.S.-Turkey relations, organized by the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEİK), the Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TAİK) and the American-Turkish Council (ATC).
Noting the importance of the long-lasting relations between Turkey and the U.S., Akar said cooperation between the two NATO allies continues in the military as well as in other areas.
The ties between the two traditional allies have soured over Ankara's decision to acquire S-400 defense missile systems from Russia.
The defense minister added that works to solve the existing issues in Turkey-U.S. bilateral relations continue. He also stressed the importance of dialogue in bilateral relations.
Akar said that Turkey faces air and missile threats. "Turkey looking for an air and missile defense system against these [threats] and working for it is a very natural thing. This is the question of sovereignty, independence, security and defense," he added.
Officials have said on a number of occasions that Turkey's decision to acquire S-400s from Russia is the result of a comprehensive calculation of geopolitical risks, compelling the country to look for alternatives to strengthen its defense systems after the U.S. refused to sell similar defense systems to Turkey.
When Turkey wanted to buy the Patriot missile system from the U.S. in 2009, during then-President Barack Obama's term, U.S. Congress declined to sell Patriot PAC-3 batteries worth $7.8 billion at the time.
U.S. officials have suggested Turkey buy U.S. Patriot missile systems rather than the S-400 from Moscow, arguing it would be incompatible with NATO systems and expose the F-35s to possible Russian subterfuge.
Turkey has responded that it was the U.S. refusal to sell Patriots that forced it to seek other sellers, adding that Russia offered a better deal that included technology transfers. Ankara has not backed down on its deal and is committed to receiving the first batch of S-400 systems. It has stressed that the S-400 deal is not a threat to NATO systems and is not on the table to be used as a bargaining chip against F-35 jets and Patriot negotiations.
The S-400 surface-to-missile (SAM) system can track and engage up to 300 targets at a time and has an altitude ceiling of 27 kilometers.
The minister said ultimatum language should be avoided in the relations between the two countries and added that S-400 procurement and the F-35 project should not be linked.
Turkey first joined the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program in 2002 and has so far invested more than $1.25 billion. It also manufactures various aircraft parts for all F-35 variants and customers.
Four F-35s already delivered to Turkey are currently at Luke Air Force Base, where Turkish pilots are being trained. Two of them are scheduled to be transferred to Turkey this November.
Akar reiterated that Turkey will not integrate S-400s into the NATO systems or any other domestically developed system. "The S-400s will be deployed in places to protect Istanbul and capital Ankara," the defense minister said. Once again, the minister emphasized the necessity for full protection of the Turkish airspace and the necessity for multiple air defense systems. Akar added that the negotiations for Patriot missiles with American counterparts were also ongoing.
Safe zone in Syria
Akar said Turkey is looking to create a 30 to 40 kilometers safe zone on the Syrian border. He explained that the terrorist groups in this region launch attacks against Turkey and pose a threat to the country's national security.
"Our aim in creating a safe zone is to maintain the security of the Turkish nation and state. We respect the territorial integrity of Syria," he said.
Akar also said on Monday that a possible safe zone should address Turkey's national security concerns," He added that in regard to the establishment of a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. Ankara puts top priority in the complete control of a safe zone planned in northern Syria to push back the PKK-linked People's Protection Units (YPG) away from the Turkish border.
U.S. Syria Representative James Jeffrey recently drew attention to the importance of the geostrategic partnership between Turkey and the U.S. "We are now working on a safe zone with Turkey, on which we have not reached any final agreement. Turkey has very significant security concerns," he said and emphasized that the U.S. understands Turkey's concerns related to the YPG, which the U.S. has used to fight Daesh. "In cooperation with Turkey, we are devising a safe zone which excludes the YPG," said Jeffrey.
Turkish authorities have repeatedly demanded that the U.S. disarm the YPG. It has proposed a 30-kilometer safe zone into Syrian territory along the border under Turkey's administration.
Turkey's NATO ally, the U.S., however, continues to arm the YPG and regards the safe zone as a buffer zone to protect its ally on the ground and seeks to deploy Western or international forces to supervise this zone – something Turkey cannot tolerate.
The safe zone discussions heightened after Trump in December announced that the U.S. would withdraw its troops from Syria, saying that Daesh was defeated, and Turkey highlighted that it will monitor the areas from which U.S. forces would withdraw, prioritizing its national security.