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Erdogan's UNGA visit strained by Sweden's NATO delay, Turkey’s F-16s sale

President Erdogan’s visit to the United States is unlikely to overcome the current deadlock in the bilateral Turkey-US ties, but the Turkish leader is set to meet his Israeli and Greek counterparts in New York.
SPENCER PLATT/AFP via Getty Images

ANKARA — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to New York on Saturday to attend the upcoming United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meetings next week, in a visit that is poised to advance Ankara’s fence-mending push with regional countries but is unlikely to overcome the deadlock in US ties over Sweden’s NATO accession.

Erdogan's schedule so far casts a focus on European and regional diplomacy. He will be meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Monday, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a later date. Erdogan will also hold a bilateral meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and is set to address the assembly on Tuesday. 

Thaw with Israel, Greece?

Erdogan’s meetings with the Greek and Israeli leaders come as Ankara is ramping up efforts to reset tattered ties with its former regional rivals. The Turkish president’s meeting with Netanyahu will mark the first one-on-one between them after years of being at odds. The two countries fully reinstated their diplomatic ties last year after more than a decade of deep freeze. 

The real question, meanwhile, is whether the diplomatic traffic in New York will yield any progress in bilateral ties between Ankara and Washington. Those are currently deadlocked over two major sticking points: congressional objections to Turkey’s bid to purchase new F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits from the United States and Turkey’s delay in ratifying Sweden's NATO accession to October. 

No White House meeting expected

Analysts warn against high expectations. According to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ankara-Washington ties have been suffering from a "mutual confidence problem" over Turkey impeding Sweden’s NATO accession and Washington’s failure to conclude the Turkish F-16 bid.

“At this stage, it seems to me that the sides are slowly losing confidence in each other's ability to deliver,” Cagaptay told Al-Monitor. “It's not just Erdogan, it's the broader national security elite that attach a lot of importance to the F-16 issue, and I think they're really frustrated that the US is not forthcoming on this issue.”

Turkey had requested in October 2021 to buy $20 billion of F-16 fighter jets and nearly 80 modernization kits. High-ranking members of Congress have objected to this sale, but could soften their position if Ankara ratifies Sweden’s bid, improves relations with Greece and maintains distance from Russia. 

Dropping his objections to Sweden’s accession to NATO after a year of resistance, Erdogan greenlighted Turkey's ratification on the sidelines of NATO's Vilnius meeting in July, but later postponed the process of ratification to October, when the Turkish parliament returns from summer recess. 

The stalemate appears to have boiled down to who blinks first.  

“The US side has a similar view,” Cagaptay added. “Turkey has promised maybe half a dozen times that the [ratification] is moving forward, and yet, we're still not there.” 

The uncertainty around the issue was further fueled by Erdogan’s remarks last week on the sidelines of the G20 summit in India. Despite his ruling coalition having a parliamentary majority, Erdogan said it was not for him but for the Turkish parliament to decide whether to ratify Sweden's bid. 

"If you say that Congress will decide [on selling F-16s to Turkey], then we have a Congress in Turkey as well — it is the Turkish parliament," Erdogan told reporters. "It is not possible for me to say 'yes' [to Sweden] alone unless such a decision is approved by [Turkish] parliament."

Erdogan has also been seeking an invitation from the White House, further emboldened by his reelection in May. US President Joe Biden broke with his predecessors Donald Trump, Barak Obama and George W. Bush, in neither paying a visit to Turkey, nor inviting the Turkish leader to the White House in the first three years in office.

Yet as things stand, Biden hosting Erdogan at the Oval Office seems unlikely, Cagaptay argued. He explained that the absence of an invitation from the White House feeds the feeling of distrust in Ankara. 

It is unclear if Biden will hold a bilateral meeting with Erdogan in New York. 

Gonul Tol, founding director of the Turkey Program of the Middle East Institute in Washington, agreed that a potential White House meeting is not in the cards given the current state of the ties. 

Erdogan’s postponing Sweden's ratification to October has led to "great frustration" on the US side, Tol said. 

“After a series of commitments, Erdogan came out and said that this would not happen before October, which in turn infuriated the White House and Biden,” Tol told Al-Monitor, “because both the administration and Biden himself saw it as a humiliation.”

“At this point, the White House says that the F-16 issue can only be addressed after the Sweden deal is done and until then, a White House meeting would not be possible,” Tol said. The expert added that NATO expansion has been of great importance for the White House both for Biden's legacy and as part of the efforts to restore the US image globally after the Trump administration. "They considered it a historical moment," she said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan will be accompanying Erdogan and is also expected to hold meetings with his foreign counterparts on the margins of the summit. This will be Fidan's first visit to the United States as foreign minister since taking the post last June.

Economic anchorage

In addition to the diplomatic push, Erdogan, who will be accompanied by several Cabinet members including the country’s Western-friendly Economy and Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek, is also seeking to advance his government’s efforts to lure Western investors to overcome Turkey's foreign currency crunch. 

Erdogan is set to meet with American billionaire businessman Elon Musk and hold a round table meeting with the representatives of leading US companies on Wednesday, Turkish media outlets close to the president reported.

Simsek’s meetings with US-based fund and portfolio managers on the sidelines of the Turkey Investment Conference to be held in New York on Tuesday will lay the groundwork for the round table. 

However, Turkey’s postponement of the Swedish ratification also came at a price on the economic front, Cagaptay argued. “Had Turkey ratified his accession after the Vilnius summit, Erdogan would have been here in Washington this week [at the White House]. …Things would have been very, very different," he said. 

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