Biden, in seeking F-16 sale to Turkey, faces pushback from Congress

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The Biden administration is preparing to ask Congress to approve a $20 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, and a separate sale of F-35s to Greece, in a proposal already facing significant scrutiny on Capitol Hill, said congressional aides familiar with the matter.

The potential sale to Turkey, like Greece a NATO member nation, would upgrade the country’s aging F-16 fleet and underscore Ankara’s global influence as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attempts to showcase his role as a dealmaker in the Russia-Ukraine war.

While the Biden administration praised Erdogan’s steps last year to broker an arrangement allowing Ukrainian grain shipments from the Black Sea, it remains critical of the Turkish leader’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system and has voiced private frustration over his refusal to back Finland and Sweden’s accession into NATO over those countries’ stance on Kurdish figures whom Ankara views as threats.

The standoff over the Nordic nations’ membership in the alliance underscores not only the complexity of US-Turkish relations but also Turkey’s ability to hold up NATO priorities. While Hungary, like Turkey, has not yet ratified Finland and Sweden’s accession, Hungarian officials have said they will take that step when their legislature reconvenes in February.

The decision to seek alliance membership after decades on the margins of NATO required a monumental shift for Swedes and Finns, underscoring Europeans’ intense concern about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

The countries’ advanced militaries would enhance NATO’s capabilities while adding hundreds of miles to its shared border with Russia — a potential liability for the United States, which would be called to assist the new members in the event of a Russian invasion. US officials have noted with satisfaction Putin’s strong opposition to NATO expansion — a direct result of his invasion of Ukraine.

NATO officials hoped to finalize the expansion months ago. Nordic officials took several steps to allay Turkish concerns, but Erdogan has not budged.

Some US lawmakers are expected to require that Turkey commit to ratify Finland and Sweden’s NATO entry as a condition for advancing any F-16 sale, said the congressional aides. News of the proposed sale was reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal.

Sen. Robert Menendez (DN.J.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Friday he would oppose the sale unless Erdogan takes several steps he supports.

“President Erdogan continues to undermine international law, disregard human rights and democratic norms, and engage in alarming and destabilizing behavior in Turkey and against neighboring NATO allies,” he said in a statement. “Until 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.”

Turkey first made its request for 40 new F-16s and 80 upgrade kits for existing warplanes in 2021, following its removal from the US F-35 program. The United States blocked Turkey from obtaining its most sophisticated stealth aircraft after Ankara purchased the advanced Russian air defenses, incurring US sanctions.

But the sale may benefit from a geopolitical landscape reshaped by the Ukraine war. Since Putin’s February invasion, Erdogan has maintained dialogue with both the Russian leader and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The separate sale of F-35s to Athens could serve to ease the concerns of Greek leaders, and their backers in Congress, given the long-standing tension between Greece and Turkey, who have quarreled over the island of Cyprus among other issues. The details of the sale have already been submitted to the relevant congressional committees for informal review, the aides said.

A State Department official declined to comment, saying it won’t discuss proposed deals or transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress. This official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a potential military sale.

The US executive branch typically submits such information to Congress for an informal review before officially notifying lawmakers of the deal, allowing them an opportunity to ask questions and raise objections. After formal notice, Congress has 30 days to vote on a joint resolution of disapproval. To date, no sale has ever been blocked by such a resolution.

Last summer, both the Defense Department and President Biden said the sale of F-16s to Turkey was in the US national interest and had their support. Conditions attached to the sale by Congress were removed from the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act last month in exchange for a provision saying that no NATO members should conduct “unauthorized territorial flights” over another member’s airspace.

The Biden administration, seeking to illustrate its cooperation with Congress, appears unlikely to resort to the unusual measure the Trump administration took in 2019 to get around legislative opposition to the sale of arms to Persian Gulf countries. At the time, Trump invoked his emergency authority to sidestep Congress and complete 22 arms deals sought by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries, despite lawmakers’ objections.

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