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Turkish FM travels to Washington seeking to seal deal for F-16 fighter jets 

Mevlut Cavusoglu’s meeting with Antony Blinken comes as Washington reportedly ties warplane deal to NATO expansion.  
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at United Nations headquarters, New York, May 18, 2022.

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu travels to Washington this week hoping to smooth the passage of a request for reinforcing the country’s F-16 fighter fleet amid heightened tensions with neighbor Greece.

Ankara has long been seeking to update its air defenses and had hoped that participation in the US-led development of the fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter would fulfill its needs. However, in response to Turkey’s acquisition of Russian-made air defense missiles, it was kicked off the F-35 project in 2019. 

US President Joe Biden’s administration has reportedly informed Congress of its intention to approve a $20 billion deal for Turkey to buy 40 updated F-16 jets and 79 modernization kits for its older F-16s. 

The agreement, however, faces opposition from some US lawmakers. Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has voiced objections over Ankara’s human rights record and its belligerence toward fellow NATO member Greece. 

“Until [Turkish 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 Saturday. 

Cavusoglu is due to meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday and said he expected the F-16 agreement to go ahead. 

“If [the Biden administration] stands firm, there will be no problem,” he said in Ankara Monday, adding that Turkey was in “agreement with the US administration in every sense. We expect it to pass uneventfully.” 

At the same time it is considering the Turkish bid, which also includes air-to-air missiles and bombs, Congress will also be handling a Greek request to buy at least 30 new F-35s — the same aircraft Turkey helped develop and had planned to acquire up to 100 to renew its air force. 

While Cavusoglu said Turkey was not concerned about “who is selling weapons to which side,” he called on the United States to “pay attention” to the balance of power in the region. 

“The balance in the relations between Turkey and Greece began to deteriorate,” he said. “The US had a policy of balance. … An ally, such as the US, needs to be careful.” 

The Greek deal, which has not raised any of the objections in Congress seen to Turkey’s plans, is part of Athens’ drive to bolster its armed forces in the wake of a naval stand-off with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean over the summer of 2020. 

Erdogan’s rhetoric toward Greece has grown increasingly hostile in recent months, even suggesting the scenario of missile strikes against the Greek capital in December, in a row over Greece’s military deployment on islands facing the Turkish coast. 

Rising tensions between the traditional rivals have seen Athens procure two dozen Rafale F3R fighters from France and upgrade of the bulk of its F-16 fleet as well as purchasing new helicopters, frigates, anti-tank weapons, missiles and recruiting more troops. 

The spending spree is an attempt to level the defense playing field with Turkey, which boasts NATO’s second-largest military in terms of manpower and has made significant advances under Erdogan in developing its arms industry. 

According to the Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Turkey is rated 11th while Greece ranks 30th of 145 countries. 

Crucially, reinforcing the air force will give Greece a technological edge over Turkey in the skies above the Aegean and Mediterranean, where for decades opposing pilots have staged sometimes deadly dogfights. 

In pursuing the F-16 deal, Cavusoglu emphasized the importance of the deal for NATO as well as Turkey, and the agreement is reportedly being linked to an issue currently defining Ankara’s relationship with the alliance, namely the accession of Sweden and Finland to the bloc. 

The success of the Nordic states’ bid to join NATO — made in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — is dependent on all 30 NATO members’ approval. All but Turkey and Hungary have ratified the decision, with Budapest expected to agree in February. 

Turkey, however, has been demanding that Sweden and Finland tighten their counterterrorism laws to bring to heel supporters of the Kurdistan Workers Party and those linked to the group Ankara says carried out a 2016 coup attempt. 

Erdogan said Sunday that Turkey expects them to deport or extradite 130 “terrorists” before the Turkish parliament will approve their bids to join.

According to US officials who spoke to The Wall Street Journal last week, the F-16 deal depends on Turkey agreeing to Sweden and Finland joining the defense alliance. 

Although Washington has not openly linked the F-16 sale to NATO expansion — Biden told journalists at the end of a NATO summit in Madrid in June that there was “no quid pro quo” — one US official told the Journal that the F-16s were a “carrot on a stick” to prompt Turkish agreement. 

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