Turkey's foreign minister to discuss F-16s and NATO during U.S. visit
- Turkish foreign minister in Washington in first official visit
- Ankara wants to buy F-16 fighter jets, Congress not supportive
- Sweden and Finland's NATO bid, Syria top the agenda
- Ankara says F-16 sale should not be "hostage" to NATO issue
WASHINGTON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will host Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington on Wednesday, a belated official visit by Turkey's top diplomat that will focus on the potential sale of F-16 fighter jets and Ankara's refusal to green light NATO membership for Sweden and Finland.
The two foreign ministers have met before on the sidelines of NATO summits and United Nations meetings but it took the Biden administration almost two years to extend an official invite to Cavusoglu, a delay that many analysts say reflects a strained relationship.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Syria policy, energy cooperation and regional security issues will also be on the agenda, U.S. and Turkish officials said.
The United States has praised Turkey for some of its actions during the Ukraine war, including mediating grain corridor talks, but also worries about Ankara's deepening relationship with Moscow.
The countries are also at odds over Turkey's desire to carry out a military operation into Syria and its intent to normalize ties with Damascus. For its part, Turkey demands Washington not support the Syrian Kurdish militia that it sees as terrorists.
Ties between the NATO allies have loosened since Turkey acquired Russian missile defense systems in 2019, which led to Ankara's removal from the next generation F-35 fighter jet program.
Turkey now hopes to buy F-16 jets from the United States, a sale that some top members of Congress oppose despite support from the Biden administration.
The U.S. lawmakers objecting to the sale cite Turkey's deteriorating human rights track record and Syria policy. But recently, Ankara's refusal to ratify NATO membership of Sweden and Finland is emerging as a more central reason in their opposition.
"(Turkish President Tayyip) Erdogan's ... repeated attacks on our Syrian Kurdish allies, and continued cozying up to Russia — including delaying Sweden and Finland's NATO membership — remain serious causes for concern," Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said in a statement.
"As I’ve said before, for Turkey to receive the F-16s, we need assurances that these concerns will be addressed," he said.
The two Nordic states applied for NATO membership last year following Russia's invasion of Ukraine but their bids need approval from all 30 NATO member states. Turkey and Hungary have yet to endorse the applications.
Turkey raised objections, accusing the countries of harboring groups it deems terrorists. It said Sweden in particular must first take a clearer stance against these groups, mainly Kurdish militants and a group it blames for a 2016 coup attempt.
Erdogan said on Monday the two countries had to deport or extradite up to 130 "terrorists" to Turkey before parliament would approve their requests to join NATO.
On Tuesday, Finland said it hoped the Turkish foreign minister's trip to the United States this week would help clear the way for it and Sweden to join the alliance.
Last week, the U.S. State Department informally notified the committees overseeing arms sales in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives of its intention to proceed with the $20 billion sale of F-16s to Turkey.
The move triggered a slew of statements from members of Congress opposing the deal, with the most notable coming from Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose leaders review major foreign military sales.
At a press conference on Saturday, Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan's chief foreign policy advisor, said Washington's demands relating to the supply of the fighter jets were "endless."
He added he hoped the F-16 deal would not become "hostage" to the NATO memberships of Sweden and Finland.
While Congress can block foreign arms sales it has not previously mustered the two-thirds majorities in both chambers required to overcome a presidential veto.
Still, the Biden administration is unlikely to follow through with the sale unless Menendez reverses his opposition, a senior administration official said.
"If the U.S. is telling us that 'You should ratify Sweden and Finland's NATO accession to get F-16 jets from the U.S., this would lead us to a dead end," deputy head of the Turkish Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee and ruling AK Party member Berat Conkar told Reuters.
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