By Humeyra Pamuk and Alexandra Alper
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday pushed Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to walk away from the purchase of a Russian missile defense system, describing it a “very serious challenge,” although he added that he hoped the NATO allies would be able to resolve that dispute.
After a much anticipated meeting at the White House to address a crisis in relations, Trump said he was “a great fan” of the Turkish leader and that they had a “wonderful and productive” encounter.
But both leaders fell short of explaining in concrete terms how they would overcome the mounting differences they have on numerous issues such as Syria policy and Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.
“Turkey’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian military equipment, such as the S-400, creates some very serious challenges for us and we are talking about it constantly,” Trump told a joint news conference.
“We talked about it today, we’re talking about it in the future, hopefully we’ll be able to resolve that situation.”
Minutes after their news conference, the White House released a statement using firmer language. “In order to achieve progress on other fronts, it is vital that we resolve the issues involving Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, strengthening our defense partnership,” it said.
Turkey and the United States have been at loggerheads over the purchase of the S-400 system, which the United States says is not compatible with NATO defenses and poses a threat to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 ‘stealth’ fighter jet.
Turkey had shrugged off threats of U.S. sanctions and began receiving its first S-400 deliveries in July. To punish Turkey for its purchase, the United States has banned sales of F-35s to Turkey and removed the country from a multinational program to produce the warplane.
“We’ve asked our secretary of state and minister of foreign affairs and our respective national security advisers to immediately work on resolving the S-400 issue,” Trump said.
Erdogan said that the two countries could only overcome their dispute on the S-400s and F-35s through dialogue. “We have agreed to open a new page in our relationship,” he said.
Despite the tensions on policy issues, Trump gave a warm welcome to Erdogan. It was in sharp contrast to anger in the U.S. Congress over Ankara’s offensive into Syria to drive out a Kurdish militia that has been Washington’s main partner in the fight against Islamic State.
“We’ve been friends for a long time, almost from Day 1. We understand each others’ country. We understand where we are coming from,” Trump told Erdogan as they sat next to each other in the Oval Office. “They’re highly respected in their country and in the region,” Trump said of Erdogan and his wife Emine.
Trump brought in five Republican senators to the White House to speak with Erdogan about the Syrian Kurds and the delivery of S-400s.
The two countries, which boast the two largest armies in NATO, hit a crisis point last month when Erdogan began his cross-border incursion against America’s Kurdish allies in Syria and upended the U.S. presence there.
In the news conference, Erdogan was critical of the U.S. Congress, particularly of a House of Representatives vote last month in favor of a non-binding resolution recognizing the killings of 1.5 million Armenians a century ago as a genocide, a symbolic but historic vote denounced by Turkey.
(Reporting by Alexandra Alper, Ginger Gibson, Eric Beech, Mohammad Zargham, Tim Ahmann and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk and Mary Milliken, Editing by Franklin Paul and Alistair Bell)