WASHINGTON — US Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., slammed Turkey as an "unfaithful ally" on Tuesday and called on the Senate to consider efforts to block F-16 sales to the country. Van Hollen made the comments during an Al-Monitor PRO event, where he addressed the new Israeli government, China's influence in the Gulf, and other regional issues as well.
Van Hollen said that Turkey has been an “important partner” for NATO in the past, but he criticized the Turkish government on a variety of current issues, including threats to invade northern Syria. The senator said the United States and the European Union should consider sanctioning Turkey if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thwarts Sweden's candidacy for membership in NATO.
“We need to be working in more coordination with our EU partners and considering, potentially, different kinds of sanctions if Erdogan continues to block the entry (into NATO) of Finland and Sweden,” said Van Hollen.
Turkey has opposed Sweden’s NATO bid in particular, pointing to the presence of Kurdish groups opposed to Turkey in the country. Sweden has a large Kurdish population. Most recently, the Turkish government lashed out at a Quran-burning protest in the country.
Van Hollen also said that Turkey will not receive US fighter jets from the United States should Sweden and Finland not be admitted into the NATO alliance.
“There are going to be no F16s going to Turkey if Turkey is not admitting Sweden and Finland,” he said.
The Biden administration unofficially informed Congress in January of its intention to sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, though the sale has yet to be formally submitted. Congress has the ability to review arms sales and pass a motion of disapproval. The president can veto this motion, and Congress can override the veto with a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. Such a scenario is unlikely due to the high barrier for passage.
Van Hollen said there is "no scenario" where the F-16 sale goes through without Turkey ratifying Sweden and Finland's NATO membership.
"If there were a formal notification (of the F-16 sale) now, yes, a resolution of disapproval would be filed," said Van Hollen, who claimed a "majority" of the senate agrees.
Van Hollen also said he believes President Joe Biden is unlikely to move forward with the F-16 sale without Sweden and Finland joining NATO.
"Obviously the president can veto it," said Van Hollen on the potential for a resolution of disapproval from Congress, "but I don't think the president wants to submit the notification under that scenario."
The senator also said the United States and Europe should consider sanctions on Turkey if the country goes through with its threat to attack US-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, adding that the “risk is real” of a Turkish military operation.
“There have to be consequences in terms of US joint European action; it would be in the form of sanctions,” said Van Hollen. “There have to be at least economic sanctions.”
Van Hollen also expressed concerns about the new Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The coalition includes some far-right Jewish nationalist politicians, most notably National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.
The senator said the government includes “extreme right-wing elements and elements that have been racist in their past conduct with Palestinians and Arabs.”
Van Hollen called Ben-Gvir’s party the “successor” to Kahanism. This is a reference to the late American-Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane, who notably called for expelling Arabs from Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The senator noted that the US position is still to back a two-state solution to the conflict. He said the current Israeli government’s view is “directly at odds” with this.
The Netanyahu government has vowed to increase Jewish settlements in the West Bank, for example.
Van Hollen also addressed the killing of Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces last year. Israel ultimately admitted the Al Jazeera journalist was killed by Israeli fire but has refused to cooperate with a US government investigation into her death. The senator said he has followed up with the Department of Justice on the matter, but because the DOJ does not comment on ongoing reports, “we have not seen progress” on the Biden administration’s calls for an independent investigation and for the Israeli military to review its rules of engagement.
The discussion also touched on the war in Ukraine and its connection to the Middle East. Van Hollen referred to the Treasury Department sending its top sanctions official, Brian Nelson, to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey next week.
“Turkey and the UAE … those are two countries where we’ve been very concerned. We’re seeing leakage of the sanctions regime,” said Van Hollen.
Reuters reported Saturday that Nelson will warn Turkey and the UAE over Russian sanctions evasion. The United States has also accused Emirati entities of evading Iran sanctions in recent months.
Van Hollen also discussed China’s efforts to establish closer relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE — two countries that are close to the United States. Van Hollen said the United States is particularly “concerned” about the UAE’s relationship with the Chinese tech giant Huawei due to the presence of US security systems in the Gulf state.
On US security support for Gulf states, Van Hollen said China is far behind the United States.
“We have longstanding relationships in the Middle East, including the security relationship, that China is not going to be able to replace in the foreseeable future,” he said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in December.
Van Hollen also spoke highly of new Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, saying the prime minister views the US troop presence in Iraq as a “stabilizing force.” At the time, Van Hollen said the United States is “very concerned” about Iran-backed militias in the Iraqi government.
On the Iran nuclear deal, Van Hollen said the “talks are in cold storage.”
The negotiations over a US return to the agreement stalled last year after Iran’s violent crackdown against protests and riots in the country.
Van Hollen currently serves on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.