The US “softened significantly on this S-400 issue. They are now at the point of ‘promise us you won’t make the S-400s operational,’”said Recep Tayyip Erdogan while returning from a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.
Erdogan’s remarks suggested that Washington had rowed back on its previous insistence that Ankara should return the S-400s, which are considered to be Russia’s most advanced long-range anti-aircraft missile system.
Russia and Turkey finalized an agreement on the delivery of the missile system in late 2017. So far, Turkey has received several batteries and has said it would make them operational in April.
The purchase has been a bone of contention in Turkey’s ties with the US, which claims the Russian systems do not fit the rest of the military equipment operated by the Western NATO military alliance, of which Turkey is a member.
Washington has suspended Ankara’s participation in a project aimed at manufacturing American F-35 aircraft in protest at the purchase.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, claimed that US Defense Secretary Mark Esper had reiterated the country’s stance concerning the prospect of Patriot missile system’s delivery to Turkey.
“Turkey is not going to receive a Patriot battery unless it returns the S-400,” it said.
A senior Turkish official talking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity, however, echoed Erdogan’s remarks concerning the US’s most recent position on the issue, saying Washington “has once again brought up the Patriot offer.”
“The United States’ previous strong stance isn’t the case anymore. They are approaching Turkey more empathetically now,” said the official, adding that this time, it would be sufficient for Washington to see “that the S-400s are not activated, or in other words, that they are not unboxed.”
Turkey asked the US to deploy the missile batteries on its border with Syria as Ankara’smilitary intervention in the Arab country is facing a decisive response from the Syrian army, threatening a direct confrontation with Russia, which backs Damascus’ anti-terror efforts.
Turkey has dispatched forces to Syria under a deal aimed at reinforcing de-escalation efforts there. The Turkish forces, however, recently ventured out of their assigned areas in northwestern Syria, engaging in deadly clashes with the Syrian army.
Outraged by Turkey’s military adventurism and ongoing support for anti-Damascus militant groups, Moscow has warned Ankara against violating the agreedde-escalation regime in Syria.
Erdogan said besides asking the US to deploy the missiles, Turkey has proposed that it would buy the missile system. “We made this offer to the United States on the Patriot: If you are going to give us Patriots, then do it. We can also buy Patriots from you,” he said.
Observers say the approach towards Washington as well as an announcement by Erdogan on March 1 that Turkey would no longer hold back refugees from entering Europe amount to Ankara’s direct attempts at dragging NATO into the Syria conflict.
US special representative for Syria James Jeffrey, meanwhile, said Washington was in talks with NATO about whatmilitary support it could provide to Turkey.
He also suggested that NATO could begin providing aerial back-up for Turkey’s Syria intervention.
“You can forget ground troops. Turkey has demonstrated that it and its opposition forces are more than capable of holding ground on their own,” he said, referring to Ankara-backed militants. “The issue is the situation in the air and it’s what we are looking at,” the envoy said.
He also reiterated Washington’s determination to get in the way of the Russo-Syrian counter-terrorism operations.
“They are out to get a military victory in Syria and our goal is to make it difficult for them to do that,” Jeffrey said.
“Our goal is…to make them think twice. If they ignore our warnings and preparations and move forward, then we will react as rapidly as possible in consultation with our NATO and European allies on what the package of sanctions and other reactions will be,” he noted.