A US congressional delegation that went to Turkey on Monday to persuade Ankara to abandon plans to purchase a Russian missile defense system in return for possible reinstatement of the delivery of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters was not eager to discuss the fate of an American evangelical pastor who is standing trial in Turkey on espionage and terrorism-related charges.
According to a report on the Middle East Eye news website, Turkish officials told local media outlets that the members of Congress were not keen to talk about pastor Brunson but instead stressed the need for defense cooperation between the two NATO allies.
Brunson’s 22-month detention has sparked a row between Turkey and the US that resulted in threatening tweets from US President Donald Trump, the imposition of sanctions on two Turkish ministers involved in Brunson’s case and a doubling of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Turkey.
The US administration also signed legislation earlier this month that blocks the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey stemming primarily from Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. The defense act also calls for the release of “wrongfully detained” US citizen Andrew Brunson.
Led by Michael Turner, a Republican congressman representing Ohio’s 10th district, the delegation signaled during its Monday meeting with Turkish officials that if Turkey cancels the purchase of the Russian military hardware, Washington could withdraw its block on the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey.
The Turkish government signed a contract to buy S-400s from a Russian defense contractor in 2017, a deal that was considered by the US and NATO to be a threat to the Alliance.
During the delegation’s visit, Turkish officials also asked for more cooperation on the country’s fight against cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Ankara accuses of leading a coup attempt in July 2016.
Gülen, a Turkish Muslim preacher living in exile in the US, and the movement he inspired deny any involvement in the abortive putsch.
Turkey has repeatedly requested his extradition from the United States, which has been refused due to the lack of credible evidence presented by the Turkish government proving his complicity in the failed coup.
The congressional delegation was also reportedly uninterested in discussing Gülen.
After the meeting with Turkish officials, the delegation visited Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), a local partner for the F-35 fighter jet production. They also made stops at NATO Land Command in İzmir and İncirlik Airbase in Adana, from where US-led operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria are conducted.
According to Turkish local media, the officials who met with the US delegation were happy about the fact that they visited the airbase in İzmir but didn’t visit Brunson, who is being held under house arrest in the city.