F-16 sale could mend US-Turkey ties, but tension with Russia creeps in

The Biden administration is weighing a Turkish proposal to buy a fleet of F-16 fighter jets that Ankara officials say would mend the breakdown in security ties between the countries, but the sale has come up against opposition. opposition from members of Congress who are critical of Turkey’s growing ties with Russia.

Senior Turkish officials have said the deal could be a lifeline for their relationship with the United States, which has suffered for years from Turkey’s Russian arms purchases, competing interests in the war in Syria and American criticism of Ankara’s human rights record. And in both countries, analysts say blocking the sale could bring Ankara closer to Russia.

The prospect of F-16 sales to North Atlantic Treaty Organization member Turkey comes as Russia tests the alliance’s resolve on the border with Ukraine, where Moscow has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and raised fears of an invasion.

The deal has its origins in 1999, when Turkey joined the US-led international consortium to build the advanced F-35 jet fighter. In 2017, Ankara decided to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system despite objections from the United States, which feared it could hack the F-35s. In response, two years later the United States expelled Turkey from the F-35 program.

With the F-35 out of reach, the new F-16s would replace the aging F-16s and F-4s in the Turkish fleet. But the proposed sale is facing resistance from lawmakers who frown on the S-400 purchase, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish policies in the eastern Mediterranean, have said US officials and congressional aides.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has developed closer ties with Russia.


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adem altan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The Biden administration has not indicated whether it will support the F-16 deal. US arms export control laws require the administration to notify Congress of proposed foreign military sales, giving lawmakers the ability to review and oppose or try to block a deal. The administration has not officially notified Congress of the proposed F-16 sale.

“It would hit speed bumps,” said a congressional aide. “The question is would these speed bumps break it or be able to overcome it?”

The proposed deal illustrates the complex national security issues in US relations with Turkey, a NATO ally and regional power that hosts thousands of US troops. The decades-old security relationship between Ankara and Washington has strained in recent years as Mr Erdogan has forged closer ties with Russia. Turkey has also attacked US-backed Kurdish militias in Syria. Meanwhile, Mr Erdogan said in November that Turkey was ready to mediate between Ukraine and Russia.

The United States is negotiating with Turkish officials over the sale, Turkish officials say. A chief adviser to Mr Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, inquired about the deal during a January 10 call with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to a person familiar with the discussion .

A National Security Council spokesman declined to comment.

“The United States and Turkey have deep and longstanding bilateral defense ties, and Turkey’s continued interoperability with NATO remains a priority,” a State Department spokesperson said. . Several NATO member states use F-16s, including Turkey.

Current and former Turkish officials have said the F-16 deal, if approved, would halt the NATO ally‘s drift towards Russia. Beyond the S-400 deal, Erdogan said last fall that he had discussed with Russia increased defense cooperation, including on fighter jets and jet engines.

“Turkey is an important player in the game and it must stay in the Western fold,” said Ilnur Cevik, senior foreign policy adviser to Erdogan.

The purchase of the S-400 drove a wedge between the two countries that resisted repair. Mr Cevik said the country had yet to deploy the missile batteries, although Mr Erdogan said he wanted to buy more.

Russian S-400 air defense systems in Moscow last May.


Photo:

Maxim Shipenkov/Shutterstock

“[The F-16 sale] is a brilliant outcome,” said James Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Turkey, who is now part of the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank. “The problem is that there is such a negative attitude towards Turkey, especially in the US Congress, that I’m afraid people will trip over it.”

The deal faces significant skepticism among leading senators who oppose Turkey’s purchase of the Russian missile system, according to congressional aides. Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the senses. Robert Menendez (D., NJ) and James Risch (R., Idaho), have yet to take a public position on the deal.

In the House, a group of members of both parties, including members of the pro-Greek Hellenic caucus, opposed the deal in letters to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last year, citing the purchases of Russian arms from Ankara and the dispute between Turkey and Greece over maritime borders. in Mediterranean.

“Our concern is, if we give them military equipment, if they are going to continue to act in this aggressive way towards Cyprus, towards the Greek islands,” said Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R., NY). “We fear that our intellectual property will be shared with Russia. [Turkey] in many ways acts as an adversary.

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Current and former Turkish officials say the sinking of the F-16 deal would punish Turkey’s defense establishment, which remains largely aligned with the United States and opposed to Russia despite Mr. Erdogan’s relationship with Mr. Putin.

“They need these planes,” said Charles Forrester, senior analyst for Janes, a defense industry publication. “The challenge for them, however, is that the S-400 situation hasn’t really been resolved publicly.”

If Turkey can’t buy the US planes, it could shop in Moscow, which offers its Su-35 fighter and Su-57 stealth fighter, as well as the Checkmate, Russia’s proposed fifth-generation single-engine stealth fighter , according to analysts. noted.

British sanctions against Turkey’s incursion into Syria would hamper Ankara’s purchase of the Eurofighter Typhoon, and France is unlikely to approve the sale of its Dassault Rafale fighters, in part because it has sold planes to Turkey’s rival Greece last year, Mr Forrester said.

Senior Turkish officials have said Ankara will not join the Russian side, but analysts say the possible collapse of the F-16 deal could bring Erdogan closer to Moscow.

“They can go to the Russians,” said Mr. Jeffrey, the former ambassador. “And then you’ll have a downward spiral of accusations and bad feelings, and that will only reinforce going in the wrong direction. That’s why the F-16 is so important.

Write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com and Brett Forrest at brett.forrest@wsj.com

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