Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s much anticipated pull aside with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi has deepened the uncertainty around Sweden’s NATO membership bid, with the Turkish leader lashing out at America’s alleged linkage of F-16 sales to Turkey with Ankara’s approval thereof.
The Biden administration was making the sale of 40 F-16 fighter jets and 80 modernization kits contingent on Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s accession to the security alliance and this "seriously upsets" Ankara, Erdogan told a news conference in the Indian capital.
Erdogan said it was for the Turkish parliament to decide whether or not to greenlight Sweden’s application and not for him to decide individually. “If you have a Congress, I have a parliament,” Erdogan said.
His comments bode ill for what the sides hope could be a potential groundbreaking meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting that will kick off Sept. 18 in New York.
Hopes for Sweden’s accession rose in July during NATO’s last summit in Vilnius, where Erdogan said he would refer the matter to the parliament before meeting with Biden in the Lithuanian capital. The announcement spurred a flurry of plaudits from alliance leaders. However, Erdogan swiftly rained on the party saying the Turkish parliament would need to ratify the treaty but that it would not be reconvening until October. Erdogan now seems to be suggesting that the parliament, where his ruling Justice and Development Party and its far-right nationalist allies command a majority, will not necessarily greenlight Stockholm’s membership.
The Biden administration insists Turkey lifting its opposition to Sweden's accession is not linked to the potential sale of F-16 fighter jets. But privately, US officials have told Turkey that Sweden's stalled NATO application is the primary obstacle to congressional approval of the long-delayed $20 billion sale, sources close to the Turkish government have told Al-Monitor.
Alliance diplomats speaking not for attribution, however, claim the opposite, saying that Ankara will not sign off on Sweden until the US Congress agrees to the sale. “It’s a chicken and an egg situation,” one of the diplomats told Al-Monitor. Paul Levin, director of the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies, commented on Twitter today that his country was “essentially a hostage” in Turkish US horsetrading over the F-16s.
The White House backs the sale, part of an effort to reset relations with Ankara that have soured over the United States’ military alliance with the self-declared Kurdish administration running northeast Syria and Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 anti-missile batteries.
The sale needs buy-in from the top Democrats and Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees. New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, who chairs the latter, remains fiercely opposed to the sale, saying Sweden’s accession to NATO and Greece’s security need to be assured first.
Turkey and Greece have been seeking to mend fences in recent months while Sweden has been trying to address Ankara’s security concerns over the activities of alleged Kurdish terrorists and other enemies of the Turkish state on Swedish soil. Turkey remains dissatisfied with Stockholm’s efforts so far.