North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson, imprisoned in Turkey since October 2016, was "wrongly charged," the Senate said Monday.
As a result, it's trying to take steps to punish the Middle Eastern nation by cutting off its access to coveted F-35 fighter jets.
The provisions are contained in a massive defense policy bill the Senate approved 85 to 10 Monday evening. It's aimed at sending a strong message from United States lawmakers that they don't approve of the imprisonment.
But the effort, which calls on the Secretary of Defense to produce a plan for removing Turkey from the F-35 program, faces complex challenges.
Experts say kicking Turkey out of the program will be difficult since it’s responsible for manufacturing some parts of the aircraft — an effort to lower the aircraft’s cost. Cutting off Turkey could derail the distribution of the aircraft to several U.S. allies and increase the plane's cost.
The clock is ticking, as a ceremony recognizing the first aircraft transfer to the country is scheduled for Thursday, according to a Lockheed Martin spokesman, after which the training of Turkish pilots would begin in the U.S.
The House passed its own version of the defense bill last month, and called for a report from the Pentagon secretary on the status of the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. That amounts to little more than "kicking the can down the road,": said Mark Thompson, a national security analyst for the Project on Government Oversight, which studies defense issues.
A House-Senate negotiating committee will iron out differences between the two bills later this year and eventually each chamber will vote on the compromise defense measure.
As tensions rise between the two countries because of Brunson and the Turks’ announcement that their country plans to purchase a Russian missile defense system called the S-400, excluding Turkey from the F-35 program remains a possibility.
“Barring a major change in Turkish behavior, the pressure is going to continue to mount for taking a harder line with Ankara,” said Nicholas Danforth, a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Brunson was living in Turkey at the time of the failed coup to unseat Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in 2016, and is accused of helping terrorist organizations. Brunson said he was not involved with such groups.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, a key backer of the Brunson measure, has long pushed for his release, and said that as U.S. relations with Turkey have soured, more reasons to question the F-35 agreement have arisen.
“We started down this path because of Pastor Brunson but the more that we learned about the joint strike fighter program there are other legitimate questions that need to be asked before we deploy joint strike fighters, F-35’s, under a Turkish flag,” Tillis said.
Turkey has threatened retaliation if the U.S. removes it from the program.
“Such steps are a breach of the spirit of our alliance with the U.S. As our minister stated, if such steps are taken, we will have no other choice but to respond accordingly,” said Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy, according to Ahval, a London-based news organization that focuses on Turkey.
Turkey’s possession of both F-35s and the S-400 system poses a “huge danger,” because it could permit Russian access to information about the jet’s F-35 operation, said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey.
“The U.S. needs to repeatedly and at the highest level explain this to President Erdogan, who right now is tied up in a very tough political campaign,” he said. Turkey’s presidential election will take place this Sunday.
The meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in early June was a good start, Jeffrey said.
But if the Pentagon was that concerned about the S-400, they likely would have taken steps to prevent the aircraft sale already, Thompson said.
Turkey’s membership in NATO complicates things further, he said.
“Concern over NATO’s future would overshadow anything dealing with the F-35,” Thompson said.