ANKARA (AFP): Turkey on Wednesday appealed to the United States to expedite F-16 jets, a sale some US officials hope could coax Ankara to lift objections to NATO expansion but is bitterly opposed by a key senator.
Meeting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he intended to discuss his country’s request for modernized versions of the mainstay F-16 fighter jets.
“As we said together before, this is not only for Turkey but also important for NATO and for the United States as well,” Cavusoglu said.
“So we expect the approval in line with our joint strategic interests.”
The United States is finalizing a $20 billion package for Turkey that is expected to include around 40 new F-16 fighter jets.
The sale would be simultaneous with a deal for top-of-the-line F-35 jets for Greece, Turkey’s historic rival with which tensions have risen sharply over disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The United States has been looking for ways to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to lift objections to allowing Sweden and Finland into NATO.
The two Nordic nations shed their earlier hesitation at formally entering the Western alliance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But all NATO members must agree, and Erdogan has pushed Sweden and Finland to crack down on Kurdish militants who have moved to the two countries.
President Joe Biden has indicated support for selling F-16s to Turkey. Blinken in his meeting called Turkey a close ally and praised its role in negotiating with Ukraine and Russia to allow grain shipments from the key global breadbasket.
But Senator Bob Menendez, a member of Biden’s Democratic Party who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has vowed to block any sale.
In a speech late last month, Menendez said that Erdogan’s remarks threatening missiles on Athens were “totally unacceptable” and condemned a ban from politics of Istanbul’s popular mayor, earlier seen as a top threat to Erdogan in May elections.
“He might be doing it out of spite. Or he might be doing it because he is a thug,” Menendez said of Erdogan.
“But one thing is clear — the United States must take the Turkish president’s actions seriously,” he said, vowing to hold up the F-16s until Erdogan “halts his campaign of aggression across the entire region.”
In a joint statement, Blinken and Cavusoglu said they “agreed on the importance of preserving stability and channels for communication” in the Eastern Mediterranean.
State Department spokesman Ned Price, asked about Menendez’s stance, acknowledged opposition from lawmakers when the administration shared its support for F-16 sales.
But Price noted that Congress also was united on wanting to see a path forward on NATO.
“There is strong support within the US Congress for Finland, Sweden, to become NATO’s newest members,” Price said.
Still, Price acknowledged concerns with Turkey including on a potential offensive against Syrian Kurds, reconciliation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and on domestic political freedoms.
“We remain deeply concerned by the continued judicial harassment of civil society, media, political and business leaders in Turkey,” Price said.
Turkey in 2019 was kicked out of the F-35 program after Erdogan went ahead with a major arms purchase from Russia, the key adversary of NATO.