Donald Trump said that he wanted to treat Turkey fairly over its plan to buy a Russian air defence system, striking a conciliatory tone that put him at odds with warnings from US officials that Ankara faces sanctions over the purchase.
Speaking after a meeting with president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 summit in Osaka, the US president acknowledged the concerns of the Pentagon that Nato F-35 jets “aren’t compatible” with Turkey buying the S-400 system.
But he blamed the Obama administration for refusing to sell US Patriot missiles to Turkey. Echoing a frequent complaint by Ankara, he told a press conference: “They kept saying: no, no, no.”
“He needed [a missile system] for defence. So he went to Russia, he bought the S-400 because he couldn’t get it, couldn’t buy it.”
He said that Turkey had been “treated very unfairly” in its efforts to buy Patriots — a claim that has previously been disputed by US officials, who say that Ankara wanted guarantees of joint production and development that could not be met.
Mr Trump said that the issue was made more difficult but the fact that Turkey had already placed an order for 100 F-35 jets. “The problem is that [Mr Erdogan] already bought the planes, and the planes aren’t compatible from our standpoint . . . national security wise. So it’s a mess.”
Mr Trump’s words are likely to complicate efforts in Washington to persuade Turkey to back down from buying the S-400, which Mr Erdogan has said will arrive in the first half of July.
The Pentagon has already begun taking steps to exclude Turkey from producing and buying F-35s if it goes ahead with the S-400 deal. US defence officials say that the purchase of the Russian equipment by Turkey, a Nato member, would compromise the security of the stealth fighters.
Meanwhile, the US State Department has warned Turkey it is likely to be hit by congressional sanctions on the Russian defence industry, which could inflict severe pain on its fragile economy.
Despite those warnings, Mr Erdogan has vowed to push ahead with the acquisition. Prior to Saturday’s meeting, he said that he would ask his US counterpart to step in to invoke a sanctions waver on Turkey’s behalf.
Mr Trump did not address the issue of a waiver in comments before and after the meeting, saying only that his administration was looking at “different solutions.”
But following their talks, Mr Erdogan said that his US counterpart had reassured him that he would not impose sanctions. “We have heard from him personally that this would not happen,” the Turkish president told reporters.
“We are strategic partners with the United States. As strategic partners, nobody has the right to meddle in Turkey’s sovereign rights. Everyone should know this.”
In a statement following the talks, the White House said that Mr Trump had expressed concern about the S-400 purchase and urged Turkey to work with the US on defence co-operation “in a way that strengthens the Nato alliance.”
The dispute over the purchase is complicated by the fact that the decision to impose sanctions lies with the US Congress, where there is bipartisan agreement on the need to prevent Turkey from acquiring the Russian defence technology. If Mr Trump were to take steps to protect Ankara from sanctions, it is unclear how Congress would respond.