Sen. James Lankford (R., Okla.) warned Wednesday the longstanding alliance between the United States and Turkey is crumbling amid President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's pivot to Russia and ongoing detention of an American pastor.
In a nod to Erdogan's crackdown on civil society in the wake of the country's failed military coup in 2016, Lankford said the NATO ally can no longer be considered open or free as its government trends toward authoritarianism.
"We have an ally that we no longer know and we no longer recognize—we'd like to have our friend and our ally back," Lankford said during a panel hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Capitol Hill. "This is a long-term alliance that's slipping away from us and we hope for a reengagement with the Erdogan government."
Lankford, alongside Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.) and Thom Tillis (R., N.C.), earlier this month inserted an amendment into the National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit the sale of F-35 join strike fighter jets to Turkey if Ankara moves forward with plans to purchase Russia's S-400 air defense system.
Though U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin transported the first F-35 to Turkish officials in Texas last week, Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that the plan to transfer dozens of the aircraft could still be put on hold.
Lankford said Turkey's attempt to acquire F-35s from the United States while it reaches out to Russia for its S-400 system, which is not interoperable with NATO and American missile defense systems, "violates the most basic part of the NATO relationship."
The 2016 jailing of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson on charges of terrorism has also inflamed tensions between Ankara and Washington. Brunson, who has served in Turkey as a Christian missionary for 23 years, was accused of having ties to Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania who Erdogan claims masterminded the coup attempt.
Lankford accused Turkey of holding Brunson "hostage" as leverage for the United States to extradite Gulen. Still, he offered a conciliatory approach to the long-time U.S. ally, saying that above all he would like to see relations mended between the two NATO members.
"Our first challenge though is not to push Turkey away, it is to try to figure out who they are and to be able to work together," he said. "They have very complicated issues and we acknowledge that. The threats to terrorism to them are on their border all the time everyday, we understand that completely and want to be able to partner with Turkey, to be able to resolve that for their national security and for our national security and the stability of the region."