(CNSNews.com) – President Biden’s plan to sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey faced another potential roadblock on Thursday when 27 U.S. senators, most of them Democrats, informed him in a letter that if Ankara does not stop blocking Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO, Congress will not support the sale.
“Congress cannot consider future support for Türkiye, including the sale of F-16 fighter jets, until Türkiye completes ratification of the accession protocols [for the two countries’ admission into NATO],” wrote the senators.
“Failure to ratify the protocols or present a timeline for ratification threatens the alliance’s unity at a key moment in history, as Russia continues its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” added the bipartisan group, led by Senate NATO Observer Group co-chairs Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
Sweden and Finland last year applied to join the transatlantic alliance, jettisoning long-held neutrality in response to the Russian invasion. All 30 current allies must ratify their membership, and so far all have done so bar Turkey and Hungary.
Hungary’s leaders say the vote will take place there soon, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leveraging the consensus requirement to demand that the two aspirants first meet certain demands.
These relate to their commitment to extradite Erdogan critics and alleged terrorists in their ethnic Kurdish populations, their readiness to sell arms to Turkey, and – most recently – Sweden’s willingness to crack down on provocative Qur’an-burning demonstrations.
In their letter to Biden, the senators said Sweden and Finland have evidently been working to meet Ankara’s concerns about terrorism and to move ahead with clearing the way for weapons exports. (They did not refer to the Qur’an-burning controversy.)
“It is clear that both Sweden and Finland are making full and good faith efforts to meet the conditions for NATO membership that Türkiye has asked,” they wrote. “Despite this evident progress, Türkiye has not ratified the accession protocols for Sweden and Finland and has been unwilling to commit to a timeline for consideration of ratification of the protocols.”
The 19 Democrat and eight Republicans signatories referred to Turkey’s value as a NATO ally, citing its role in an U.N. brokered agreement reached last year to release Ukrainian grain shipments held up as a result of Russia’s aggression.
“This relationship, however, has been shadowed by continued delays in ratification for NATO enlargement and those delays pose a risk to the security of the alliance, to Europe and to the international world order that Vladimir Putin continues to threaten,” they said.
“Once the NATO accession protocols are ratified by Türkiye, Congress can consider the sale of F-16 fighter jets. A failure to do so, however, would call into question this pending sale.”
The Turkish government has rejected attempts to link the NATO ratification with the F-16 sale.
“If the American Congress makes NATO accession process a precondition for the F-16 program, they can wait for a long time,” the Anadolu state news agency quoted Erdogan spokesman and advisor Ibrahim Kalin as saying. “We are not tying the two together.”
Ankara wants to buy 40 F-16 Fighting Falcon jets, and dozens of upgrade kits to modernize outdated F-16s already in its fleet.
After meeting with Erdogan on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Spain last summer, Biden underlined his support for the sale, and voiced optimism that Congress would approve it.
But opposition on Capitol Hill was evident early on. Most significantly, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) declared his readiness to block the sale, based on a string of troubling Turkish actions and policies.
They include Erdogan’s crackdown on dissident and repressive policies at home, his threats towards Greece – also a NATO ally – over territorial disputes in the eastern Mediterranean, and military offensives in Syria. The cross-border operations target Kurds whom the Turks say are terrorists, but who are key partners of the U.S. in the campaign against ISIS.
With an eye on Erdogan’s behavior towards longstanding rival Greece, the co-chairs of the Congressional Hellenic Caucus, Reps. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) and Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), have also voiced determination to work to block the F-16 sale.
In what appears to be a bid to placate some of the concerns, the administration is reportedly planning to notify Congress of both the proposed F-16 sale to Turkey and a separate sale of F-35 joint strike fighters to Greece. Formal notification has yet to take place.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week that the administration has made clear to Turkey congressional support will be needed for the sale to go ahead – and that lawmakers will likely view the sale “far more favorably” once Turkey ratifies NATO entry for Sweden and Finland.
State Department spokesman Ned Price on Thursday reiterated the administration’s support, but noted that Congress has “a say” over arms sales.
“We’ve made clear to Congress our support for the F-16s. Congress has made its position clear, or I should say individual senators – or groups of senators, in some cases – have made their positions clear.”
Price said the U.S. was “continuing to engage Turkey,” which he described as “a valuable NATO ally.” He also underlined the administration’s strong support for Sweden and Finland joining NATO.
(Turkey’s government is urging the international community to adopt its preferred spelling for the country’s name, hence the senators’ use of “Türkiye” in their letter.)
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