No Turkey arms sales as long as it possesses Russian S-400s - Senator

Turkey risks fresh U.S. sanctions if Ankara decides to purchase a new batch of the Russian weapon system, Jeff Flake, the nominee for Ankara post said during his confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. 

Former senator Jeff Flake was nominated by U.S. President Joe Biden in the summer to be the new U.S. ambassador to replace current ambassador David Satterfield. 

Flake, when asked by the chairman of the committee Senator Bob Menendez about his thoughts on application of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) against Turkey, affirmed that the current CAATSA sanctions against Turkey should not be lifted unless S-400s disposed by Turkey and new S-400 purchase by Ankara will trigger fresh CAATSA sanctions. Flake noted that these sanctions made a “serious impact on Turkish economy” since the defence sector is taking a considerable space in the economy, and hurting Turkey.

Menendez said that he sees “no arms going to Turkey” while the S-400 issue remains unresolved.

CAATSA sanctions were imposed by the outgoing Donald Trump administration in December after Congressional pressure on the White House. 

Flake, in his testimony to the Committee, said he was "troubled by Ankara’s democratic backsliding and the negative trajectory in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of association, and peaceful assembly in Turkey". When asked how he will deal with the situation on the ground to improve human rights in the country, Flake said he will "continue to practice speaking truth to the power, speaking out and being frank,” when working for these issues, just like the current U.S. ambassador Satterfield.

Satterfield was not particularly well-known as an ambassador who focused on human rights abuses or freedom issues during his two-and-a-half-year tenure in Ankara. On the contrary, Satterfield is probably the most silent U.S. ambassador in Ankara since James Jeffrey, who served in Turkey between 2008 and 2010, in terms of his failure to speak up on worsening human rights and freedoms.

Flake said that “restoring the full freedoms of the Turkish people and rebuilding confidence in the rule of law” in Turkey "would go far toward expanding the potential for further economic investment and international partnerships". Flake said if confirmed, he was ready to "challenge Turkey to uphold its domestic and international human rights commitments while also pushing Turkey to live up to its status as a NATO ally."

Flake noted that despite "the very real challenges in U.S.-Turkish relations, Turkey is an indispensable ally, anchored in NATO and acting as both a bridge and a buffer to a region in constant flux".

He said during a question-and-answer session that he intended to recognise the Armenian Genocide and participate in commemorations for the recognition of the tragic events on April 24. This was the first time any U.S. ambassador going to Turkey pre-announced such a move. Flake, as a former member of the U.S. Congress, did not vote for such recognition during his time in the position.

U.S. President Joe Biden recognised the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as genocide last April, following U.S. Congressional recognition in 2019.

In his written testimony, Flake also discussed Turkey's importance as a trade partner, a country "hosting more than 1,900 U.S. companies", including some of U.S.'s "largest and most recognised brands, and the United States is Turkey’s fourth-largest source of imports".

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has harshly criticised Biden since failing to secure a meeting with him in New York during the United Nations General Assembly last week. Erdoğan labeled Biden as his worst counterpart since the George W. Bush years in the early 2000s. 

One of the thorniest issues between the countries is Washington's support for Kurdish militants in Syria in the war against Islamic State (ISIS). 

Turkey has launched three separate military interventions into neighbouring Syria since 2016 targeting mainly Kurdish forces in the north, which Ankara sees as a threat due to their alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey for almost four decades.

Flake affirmed U.S. support to the group and praised the Kurds for their fight against ISIS on the ground as an effective partner in defeating the group.

On Cyprus, Flake concurred with a questioning senator criticising Erdogan’s steps with regards to the ghost town of Varosha as “most definitely” violating the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The resort’s re-opening is seen as part of a broader policy by the Turkish president to improve Ankara’s leverage in the eastern Mediterranean. Flake said in response to a question by Van Hollen that “there is no two-state solution” for Cyprus, a view that runs contrary to Turkish government policy.

Erdoğan is holding a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Wednesday. Erdoğan is also due to meet with Biden on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Rome next month, according to Turkey’s state-run TRT television.

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