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WASHINGTON — Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake vowed to warn Turkey that future purchases of Russian weapons risks triggering more sanctions if he is confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to the Middle Eastern country.
Flake, a Republican, also said during a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday that he would work to advance democratic ideals and human rights in Turkey, which detains more journalists than any nation but China.
President Joe Biden nominated Flake, who endorsed Biden for president last year, to serve as ambassador to Turkey in July. If confirmed, he would be the first political appointee to the position in 40 years.
Flake appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will vote later on whether to advance his nomination to the full Senate. He appears to have support among Democrats and Republicans, including Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney.
Flake's nomination comes at a pivotal time in the longstanding, complex and now strained relationship between the United States and Turkey. There are areas where the two countries are firmly aligned, and areas where they sharply disagree.
Despite tireless U.S. efforts to address Turkey's security needs, it chose to buy and test fire the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, Flake said. The deal ran counter to the commitments U.S. allies made at the 2016 NATO Summit and triggered Turkey's removal from the F-35 combat aircraft program and the imposition of sanctions.
Flake said he would consistently reiterate that disposing of the system is the path to removing sanctions and would warn Turkey buying other Russian weapons risks triggering further sanctions.
"At the same time, we should encourage Turkey to purchase U.S. defense items that keep the Turkish military interoperable with NATO," he said.
Flake said he is also troubled by Ankara's "democratic backsliding" and the negative trajectory in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of association, and peaceful assembly in Turkey. He said he would 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.
"I will, if I am confirmed, continue the practice of speaking truth to power, of speaking out at being frank," he told the committee.
Despite the challenges in U.S.-Turkey relations, Turkey is an indispensable ally, anchored in NATO and acting as both a bridge and a buffer to a region in constant flux, Flake said.
"Our national interest is served when the United States and Turkey work together to confront the very real threats to global peace and security that emanate from Russia, Iran, and elsewhere in the wider region," he said.
Flake spent six terms in the U.S. House, from 2001 to 2013, before serving a single six-year term in the Senate. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he noted that his wife, Cheryl, traveled to Turkey as a member of the Young Ambassadors, a song and dance performing group, while a student at BYU 30 years ago.
"When I was asked if I might want to be ambassador to Turkey, Cheryl said, 'I suppose it's your time now,'" he said. "I look forward to traveling with her."