Turkey asks US for F-16 jets amid Nato and Congress rows

US is finalising $20 billion package for Turkey expected to include 40 new F-16 fighter jets

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday. AFP
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Turkey on Wednesday appealed to the US to hasten delivery of F-16 jets in a sale officials hope could coax Ankara into lifting objections to a Nato expansion.

But the deal 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 modernised 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," Mr Cavusoglu said.

"So we expect the approval in line with our joint strategic interests."

The US is finalising a $20 billion package for Turkey that is expected to include about 40 new F-16s.

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 US has been looking for ways to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to lift objections to allowing Sweden and Finland into Nato.

The two nations became keen to join the western alliance after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

But all Nato members must agree, and Mr Erdogan has pressured Sweden and Finland to crack down on Kurdish militants who have moved to the two countries.

US President Joe Biden has indicated support for selling F-16s to Turkey.

Mr Blinken called Turkey a close ally and praised its role in negotiating with Ukraine and Russia to allow grain shipments to the world.

But Senator Bob Menendez, a member of Mr Biden's Democratic Party who leads the Senate foreign relations committee, has vowed to block any sale.

Late last month, Mr Menendez said that Mr Erdogan's remarks threatening Athens with missiles were "totally unacceptable".

He also condemned a ban from politics of Istanbul's popular mayor, earlier considered to be a major threat to Mr Erdogan in May elections.

"He might be doing it out of spite. Or he might be doing it because he is a thug," Mr Menendez said of Mr Erdogan.

"But one thing is clear — the United States must take the Turkish President's actions seriously."

Mr Menendez pledged to hold back the F-16s until Mr Erdogan "halts his campaign of aggression across the entire region".

In a joint statement, Mr Blinken and Mr 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 Mr Menendez's stance, acknowledged opposition from politicians when the administration shared its support for F-16 sales.

But Mr 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," he said.

But Mr 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," he said.

Turkey in 2019 was removed from the F-35 programme after Mr Erdogan completed a major arms purchase from Russia, the key adversary of Nato.

Updated: January 18, 2023, 11:29 PM