F-16 Deal Contingent on Turkey’s Support for NATO Expansion, Syria

Turkey’s F-16 fighter jet request from the United States and the possibility of another operation by Turkish military in northern Syria are expected to top the agenda during talks in Washington when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu meets Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday. Analysts say any F-16 deal would be tied to Turkey’s timely support for NATO’s expansion and no military action in northern Syria. 

Turkey made an official request to purchase 40 F-16 jets and nearly 80 modernization kits from the United States in 2021. Biden administration officials have expressed support for the proposed sale, subject to approval by Congress. 

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the administration is preparing to begin consultations with Congress to seek approval for the $20 billion sale. 

James Jeffrey, chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, argues that any prospective support from Congress would depend on cooperation from NATO member Turkey on two issues: No military incursion into northern Syria and not blocking the admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO. 

“The opposition in the Senate will probably require senior levels of the administration weighing in with security arguments. I’m not so sure if they’re ready to go that far, but I cannot imagine them doing a whole lot to help Turkey get F-16s if we don’t see a movement on those two issues,” he told VOA. 

Former head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) General Joseph Votel, who oversaw the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — also known as ISIS or Daesh — agrees. 

Answering VOA’s questions in writing, Votel said the United States must tie any F-16 deal to “Turkish support for NATO expansion and an agreement to not further de-stabilize northern Syria with military action.” 

Twenty-eight NATO members have already ratified Sweden and Finland’s admission to the alliance. Turkey and Hungary have not. Hungary says it will do so in early February, leaving Turkey as the sole holdout. 

Turkey expects Finland and particularly Sweden to do more to crack down on Kurdish militants and members of the Gulen movement, which Ankara accuses of being behind an attempted coup in 2016. 

F-35s for Turkey’s regional rival Greece 

According to the WSJ report, the Biden administration is separately planning to seek congressional approval to sell F-35 jets to Turkey’s regional rival and NATO ally Greece. 

Turkey was removed from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program, where it was once a production partner, due to its purchase of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia. 

U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel declined to comment on the potential sale Friday at the daily press briefing. 

Senate Foreign Relations Commitee Chairman Bob Menendez welcomed news of the proposed sale of F-35 aircraft to Greece, which he referred to as a “trusted NATO ally’’ in a written statement first reported by Reuters and shared with VOA. 

He underlined that the United States and Greece share principles “including collective defense, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” 

Menendez opposes the proposed sale of F-16s jets to Turkey. 

“Until [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan ceases his threats, improves his human rights record at home — including by releasing journalists and political opposition — and begins to act like a trusted ally should, I will not approve this sale,” he said. 

Syria agenda 

U.S. military leaders continue to be worried about possible military action by Turkey in northern Syria against the Kurdish YPG, part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. 

CENTCOM Commander General Michael Kurilla noted that more than two dozen ISIS detention centers are secured by the Syrian Democratic Forces. 

“Anything we can do to de-escalate the situation and prevent that incursion by the Turks would be important,’’ he said last month during a news briefing.

Former head of CENTCOM Votel says the chances of some sort of military activity by Turkey are likely, even though it may be limited in scope. 

He points to previous decisions by Erdogan, saying “this generally plays well with his loyalists.” 

Reconciliation efforts between Turkey and the Syrian government are also expected to come up during the talks in Washington. 

Turkey’s Cavusoglu recently said he could meet his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, in February. 

The United States has already made its position clear, saying it does not support countries “upgrading” their relationship with the Assad regime in Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly said last week that “talks with Turkey should be based on the aims of ending the occupation of Syrian land” and halting support for what he called terrorism. 

The Wilson Center’s Jeffrey, who also served as the State Department Special Representative for Syria Engagement until 2020, argues that the Syrian president is unwilling to make any deals and that the talks are being pushed by Russia, “with no compromises on the security situation in Syria or on the return of the refugees,” which are two important concerns from Turkey’s perspective. 

“We shouldn’t read anything into this, particularly given the looming election in Turkey. I would rather wait until after the elections to see what the real Turkish policy is,” Jeffrey told VOA. 

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