US cautiously considering F-16 deal for Turkey despite more Russian S-400s for Ankara


An announcement by Russia last week that Turkey is on track to receive another “regiment” of the S-400 missile defense system has officials in Washington scratching their heads.

But the Biden administration has suggested that Ankara will not face additional sanctions because it emerged that the new batch of Russian weapons was part of the original deal, which forced the Trump administration to penalize Turkey. under US law.

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The United States sanctioned Turkey using the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in 2020, which included a ban on all U.S. export licenses to Turkey’s Defense Industries Branch (SSB) and a asset freezes and visa restrictions for its chief and deputies.

Despite repeated warnings to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his aides, Turkey went ahead and was also kicked out of the F-35 fighter jet program.

Changing Alliances

After a bumpy initial relationship between Washington and Ankara under President Joe Biden, which further angered Erdogan by acknowledging the Armenian Genocide, Turkey found itself in a position to negotiate after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Erdogan was able to help broker a deal that allowed Ukrainian grain shipments to pass through the Black Sea. He also lifted his NATO membership veto for Finland and Sweden.

And as an alternative to the F-35s, Turkey offered to buy F-16 fighter jets instead. Additionally, as part of the potential deal, Turkey would also ask the United States to upgrade its existing fleet of 80 older F-16s, which are in dire need of modernization.

The Biden administration has signaled its openness to such a deal, but it has faced strong opposition from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly Biden’s own political party.

Last month, Congress passed a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to prevent the Biden administration from selling F-16s to Turkey and add congressional oversight to “ensure that Turkey does not use F-16s to violate Greek sovereignty”.

Turkey has offered to buy F-16 fighter jets instead, and as part of the potential deal it would also ask the United States to upgrade its existing fleet of 80 older F-16s, which had badly in need of modernization. (File image)

Lawmakers criticized Turkey’s continued possession of the Russian S-400 and “it is increasingly belligerent rhetoric and aggression towards Greece, NATO’s reliable and democratic ally”.

And just two weeks ago, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sounded the alarm over the sale of F-16s to Turkey, calling on Turkey to reject any military cooperation with “a war criminal like Vladimir Putin.

“The United States must be clear: Any expansion of Turkey’s ties with the Russian defense sector would be a grave mistake that would further endanger the security of our NATO allies and partners across Europe,” said Senator Bob Menendez in a statement.

Asked about the second regiment of S-400s, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that the United States was not aware of any new developments on the matter. When asked if this would change the calculus of the F-16 deal, Price said: “We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but we’re not aware of any new developments on that. and so we will refer you to the Turkish authorities for now to speak.

He added: “But the point we have consistently made across the board is that Russia’s brutal and unwarranted war on Ukraine makes it vital, now more than ever in some ways, that all countries avoid transactions. with the Russian defense sector. This exposes them to penalties. »

On Wednesday, Price was again asked about the F-16 deal following reports that a Turkish delegation was in Washington to discuss the matter. Price revealed little information other than the fact that meetings were underway regarding “Turkey’s request for F-16 support” and that a delegation had traveled to the United States for related discussions.

NATO and the geostrategic importance of Turkey

Turkey has frustrated Washington and other NATO members with its human rights abuses and crackdown on journalists, siding with Russia and its overflights of the Greek islands.

Turkey has also embarked on a fierce campaign targeting US-backed fighters in Syria, with Erdogan calling them “terrorists”. Biden has accused the Turkish government of undermining the campaign to defeat Islamic State.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Sochi, Russia August 5, 2022. (Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Sochi, Russia August 5, 2022. (Reuters)

Nonetheless, Turkey’s location and political clout are significant enough that the United States continues to seek ways to ensure it remains an important ally.

A senior State Department official previously told Al Arabiya English that it is crucial for NATO to ensure Turkey has fully operational air capabilities. “Turkey desperately needs to modernize its current fleet of fighter jets [for NATO]”said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

The official said the life of Turkey’s current F-16 fleet would be extended “by about five to 10 years” if the United States provided specific technology. “It’s their decision and it could be easy. They could just ship the S400s to Ukraine,” the official said. While that sounds far-fetched, the official stressed that it would almost certainly see a positive response from Congress.

The US president expressed his support for the sale of F-16s at the NATO summit in Madrid in June, shortly after Erdogan said he was ready to lift his veto on Swedish and Finnish offers membership in NATO.

Giving a much-needed boost, Turkey appears to have some Republican supporters of the F-16 deal.

“I support the sale. Although we have differences with the Turkish government, Turkey is a NATO ally and we must strengthen this alliance,” Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement to Al Arabiya English.

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has previously said the Turks have a credible argument for why they should use the F-16s.

“I’m positively disposed in that direction, but I’m not completely there yet,” Sen. Jim Risch told Defense News on May 4.

The Pentagon has also been a strong supporter of ensuring Turkey gets the fighter jets, citing NATO and US security interests.

After the NATO deal on Sweden and Finland, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander told reporters that the Department of Defense “fully supports plans to modernize the Turkey for its F-16 fleet”.

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