U.S. Backs Patriot Missile Sale to Turkey in Breakthrough

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. State Department notified Congress of a proposal to sell the Patriot air and missile defense system to Turkey, a move that may signal a breakthrough with a NATO ally that had been moving closer to Russia and roiling administration plans for the F-35 fighter jet.

The potential $3.5 billion deal for the Patriot system, which is manufactured by Raytheon Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., marks an opening gambit by the Trump administration to get Turkey to halt its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, which the administration and Congress had vehemently opposed, according to four people familiar with internal discussions before the announcement.

U.S. Backs Patriot Missile Sale to Turkey in Breakthrough

Tensions between the U.S. and Turkey have escalated in recent years as the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned more authoritarian and the two allies disagreed over U.S. support for Kurdish militias in Syria. In recent days, Erdogan threatened to send his forces in Syria toward Kurdish-held areas where U.S. troops are operating, raising the prospect of a battlefield confrontation between NATO’s two biggest armed forces.

“It’s a big deal, because only a few months ago, analysts were predicting all doom and the end of a nearly seven-decades-old U.S.-Turkey relationship,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This suggests a new phase in U.S.-Turkish ties, one driven by a new rapport between Presidents Erdogan and Trump, and aided by bureaucracies in both countries determined not to let the U.S.-Turkish relationship collapse.”

Trump administration officials seeking better relations were stymied by a disagreement that threatened to turn into a crisis: Turkey’s intention to purchase an advanced Russian anti-aircraft missile system, the S-400 Triumph.

Turkey is a crucial partner in the U.S.-led program to build the F-35 stealth fighter jet, with 10 Turkish companies set to produce about $12 billion in parts, including key components such as the center fuselage and some landing gear.

The Russian S-400 was designed to shoot down U.S. and coalition aircraft at greater ranges and altitudes than older systems. U.S. officials are concerned that sensitive F-35 technology designed to evade such a system could be compromised and used to improve the Russian air defense system if Turkey takes possession of both systems.

The White House and several members of Congress were against the idea of Turkey having both F-35s and the S-400, whose computer systems could gain -- and possibly feed back to Russia -- crucial data about the warplane. At the same time, lawmakers had successfully blocked the possibility of a Patriot deal over fear of rewarding Turkey for what was seen as its bad behavior.

The people familiar with the discussions, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, said congressional opposition softened after the administration argued Turkey would face punishing sanctions no matter what if it went through with the S-400 purchase.

Speaking to reporters in Washington last month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country had wanted to buy Patriot missiles but was never able to get a commitment from Washington. He said there was no going back on the S-400 deal with Moscow but left the door open to buying U.S. hardware in the future.

Turkey had pushed hard in recent weeks to control damage from the S-400 decision. Two of the people familiar with the discussions said Turkey had floated the idea of offering U.S. technical experts the chance to study any S-400s that it purchased from Russia.

The State Department said the Patriot sale would strengthen Turkey as it confronts instability in the region, according to a statement by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency posted on Tuesday.

“This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by improving the security of a key NATO Ally on the front lines of the fight against terrorism,” according to the statement.

The proposed deal, which must be approved by Congress, includes up to 140 Patriot missiles, radar and ground control stations. Lawmakers have 15 days to review the proposed sale under streamlined procedures the State Department has in place for NATO allies.

The White House declined to comment on the proposal.

Turkey has given no indication so far that it will be willing to give up the S-400 and officials there have said they want technology transfer as part of the Patriot deal, which the U.S. may not be willing to provide.

The complication over the S-400 was not the only obstacle to better U.S.-Turkish ties. Turkey continues to detain a NASA scientist and Turkish employees of the State Department after freeing a detained American pastor earlier this year. Erdogan has been frustrated by the conviction in a U.S. court of a Turkish banker on sanctions-violation charges. And the Ankara government demands that the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally who has been living in the U.S., be extradited.

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