U.S. President Donald Trump has agreed to form a joint working group with Turkey to address its concerns about Ankara's procurement of Russian S-400 missile defense systems, a report by Middle East Eye said on Friday.
Trump overruled the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department, and agreed to form the working group during a phone call between him and President Erdoğan on Wednesday, according to Ragıp Soylu's report in the Middle East Eye which cites anonymous Turkish sources.
Erdoğan and other Turkish officials had repeatedly offered to form a joint technical study group to make sure the S-400 systems would not pose a threat to F-35 fighter jets or NATO systems — an argument the U.S. has used to criticize Turkey's deal with Russia.
The report said U.S. defense officials refused to participate in the working group but President Trump made the final decision following the phone call.
Soon after the news broke out, Bloomberg and Turkey's state-run news agency Anadolu Agency also confirmed the report, both citing their own anonymous sources in Ankara and Washington. Daily Sabah could not independently verified the reports.
Following the reports, Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said that he was "unaware" of plants to create the joint working group.
"I haven't heard of the joint study group," Shanahan reportedly said at Asia Security Summit in Singapore.
Trump's reported decision comes amid strained diplomatic ties between Turkey and the U.S. over Ankara's decision to purchase the Russian-made systems.
Tensions between the U.S. and Turkey have reached a fever pitch in recent months with Turkey set to begin receiving the advanced S-400 Russian surface-to-air missile system which Washington said will jeopardize Turkey's role in the U.S. F-35 fighter jet program and could trigger congressional sanctions.
Following protracted efforts to purchase an air defense system from the U.S. with no success, Ankara decided in 2017 to purchase the Russian S-400 system.
U.S. officials have suggested Turkey buy the U.S. Patriot missile system rather than the S-400, arguing it is incompatible with NATO systems and is a threat to the F-35 fifth-generation stealth aircraft.
Turkey responded it was the U.S.' refusal to sell Patriots that led it to seek other sellers, adding that Russia offered a better deal, including technology transfers.
When Turkey wanted to buy the Patriot system from the U.S. in 2009 during Barack Obama's term, the U.S. Congress declined the offer for the sale of the Patriot PAC-3 batteries worth $7.8 billion at the time.
In an attempt to persuade Turkey to drop its plans to buy the S-400, the United States offered in January the pricier American-made Patriot anti-missile system for $3.5 billion.
Turkey said Ankara would be interested in the Patriot system if terms were agreeable, but not at the expense of abandoning the S-400 as it was a "done deal."