Turkey urges Biden administration to be 'decisive' over F-16 deal as Congress objects

  • 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

WASHINGTON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Turkey on Wednesday urged the Biden administration to be decisive in its bid to sell F-16 warplanes to Turkey and convince the U.S. Congress to drop its opposition to a planned $20 billion deal.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Washington he had told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Turkey dropping its objections to Sweden and Finland joining NATO should not be a precondition for the F-16 sale.

"What is important here is whether the administration will be decisive or not.... If it displays a strong stance against any steps to prevent this, the issue would be resolved," Cavusoglu said after meeting Blinken, in comments broadcast by Turkish state television TRT.

The Biden administration has expressed its support for the sale of the jets to Turkey, despite opposition from Congress over Ankara's problematic human rights record and Syria policy, as it seeks to keep NATO unity in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

But the Congress has been loud in its opposition. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whose leaders review major foreign military sales, have been against the deal.

"The administration should not waste such an important deal between two allies just because one person or a few people are blocking it. It should not bow down," Cavusoglu said.

Recently, Ankara's refusal to ratify the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland has become more central to Congress' 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.

In his meeting with Blinken, Cavusoglu said Ankara's approval of the Nordic countries' NATO bid was not presented as a precondition, but he said the U.S. side made it clear that it would be viewed positively by the Congress.

Cavusoglu said Turkey was not denying that the two countries have taken steps to address Ankara's security concerns but there was more they should do and that they knew that.


Ties between the United States and Turkey have been strained since Turkey acquired Russian missile defense systems in 2019.

While Cavusoglu and Blinken have met numerous times in the past at NATO summits and U.N. meetings, it took the Biden administration almost two years to officially invite Cavusoglu, a delay that analysts say reflects a strained relationship.

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 plans for a military operation into Syria and its intent to normalize ties with Damascus. For its part, Turkey demands Washington does not support the Syrian Kurdish armed groups that it sees as terrorists.

Tensions between Turkey and fellow NATO ally Greece over the Aegean Sea have also negatively impacted the sentiment in the U.S. Congress towards Ankara.

Last week, the 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 sale.

But a senior administration official said Washington was unlikely to follow through with the sale unless Menendez reverses his opposition.

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.

The U.S. side did not give a date on when they would send the formal notification for the F-16s to Congress, Cavusoglu added.

Additional reporting by Huseyin Hayatsever in Ankara, Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Don Durfee and Alistair Bell

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Humeyra Pamuk is a senior foreign policy correspondent based in Washington DC. She covers the U.S. State Department, regularly traveling with U.S. Secretary of State. During her 20 years with Reuters, she has had postings in London, Dubai, Cairo and Turkey, covering everything from the Arab Spring and Syria's civil war to numerous Turkish elections and the Kurdish insurgency in the southeast. In 2017, she was won the Knight-Bagehot fellowship program at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. She holds a BA in International Relations and an MA on European Union studies.