ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Russia started delivering advanced missile defense equipment to NATO member Turkey on Friday, the Defense Ministry in Ankara said, setting the stage for likely U.S. sanctions on Ankara.
The dispute over the S-400 air defense missiles, which the United States says are incompatible with NATO military systems and could threaten U.S. F-35 stealth fighter jets which Turkey has also ordered, is one of several issues which have frayed ties between the two allies.
Friday’s delivery of the first parts of the S-400s to a military air base outside Ankara is likely to trigger U.S. sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
Under the CAATSA legislation, which targets purchases of military equipment from Russia, U.S. President Donald Trump should select five of 12 possible sanctions ranging from banning visas and denying access to the U.S.-based Export-Import Bank, to the harsher options of blocking transactions with the U.S. financial system and denying export licenses.
Despite Erdogan’s assurances after meeting Trump last month that Turkey would not face sanctions, Washington also plans to remove it from the program to produce the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet, an aircraft Turkey is helping to build and plans to buy.
Turkey is furious about U.S. support in Syria for the Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara sees as a terrorist group. Washington is coordinating with Ankara and the YPG to establish a safe zone on Turkey’s southern border. Ankara wants YPG fighters to withdraw from the area to secure its border, and Washington wants guarantees that the U.S.-backed YPG forces which defeated Islamic State will not be harmed.
The United States reimposed sanctions on Iran last year, barring countries from importing its oil. In May Washington scrapped a six-month waiver granted to Turkey and seven other big importers in order to step up attempts to isolate Tehran and choke off its oil revenues.
Turkey, which complained but fully complied with the sanctions, is dependent on imports for almost all of its energy needs and Iran is a leading gas and oil supplier.
A Turkish court in June refused to release Metin Topuz, a translator and fixer for the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, who will be held at least until his next appearance on Sept 18.
His arrest in October 2017 led to a diplomatic dispute and suspension of visa services by both countries. Topuz is one of three U.S. consulate employees who have been charged in criminal cases that have been major irritants relations with Washington.
Erdogan has bitterly criticized U.S. support for Israel. He said its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital meant Washington had forfeited its role as a mediator in the region, while Trump’s support for Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in a 1967 war, could trigger a crisis.
When Trump gave his public backing to Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido earlier this year, Erdogan said he was shocked by the U.S. president’s move, and responded by calling President Nicolas Maduro to tell him: “Stand tall.”
Last year a U.S. court sentenced Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish citizen and banker at Turkey’s state-controlled Halkbank, to 32 months in prison after he was convicted of taking part in a scheme to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions.
Washington is also considering a fine against Halkbank.
Federal prosecutors accused Atilla of conspiring with gold trader Reza Zarrab and others to elude U.S. sanctions using fraudulent gold and food transactions. Zarrab pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecutors.
Zarrab described a scheme that he said included bribes to Turkish government officials and that was carried out with the blessing of Erdogan. Erdogan has condemned the case as a political attack on his government.
Attila is due to be released on July 19.
Turkey demands that the United States extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara has said orchestrated a failed 2016 military coup against Erdogan.
U.S. officials have said the courts would require sufficient evidence to extradite the elderly Gulen, who has denied any involvement in the coup.
Reporting by Dominic Evans and Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Daren Butler and Gareth Jones