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Turkey NATO Stance Prompts US F-16 Sales Approval


A high-stakes deal has just been struck to sell American F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, ending a years-long saga that severely tested relations within NATO. This complex $23 billion agreement featured intense brinkmanship among the United States, Turkey, Sweden and Greece, laying bare growing fissures within the alliance.

The convoluted negotiations necessitated painful compromises, controversial concessions and delicate diplomacy to keep the decades-old partnership intact in the face of rising global tensions.

The awkward bargaining exposed NATO’s internal tensions as it faces its biggest crisis since the Cold War. While Russia’s aggression forced the alliance to close ranks, lingering grievances and competing priorities among its members hampered efforts to project unity.

This precarious balancing act shows that forging consensus among 30 partners with divergent interests is proving increasingly strained. As external threats grow, can NATO’s foundation of mutual trust withstand these deepening internal fractures?

It had been a long and winding road, but after months of tense negotiations, the United States government finally approved a massive $23 billion deal to sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.

This came after Ankara ratified Sweden’s membership in NATO, ending a prolonged standoff that had frustrated Western leaders aiming to showcase unity against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The state department formally notified Congress of the F-16 agreement, as well as a separate $8.6 billion sale of 40 advanced F-35 jets to Greece.

Under the new deal, Turkey will receive 40 brand-new F-16 fighter jets and crucial upgrades to 79 of the aging F-16s already in its fleet.

This was a major win for Turkey’s air force, which had suffered from the country’s expulsion from the American-led F-35 program back in 2019.

That punishment had come in response to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s controversial decision to acquire an advanced Russian missile defense system, despite repeated warnings from his NATO allies.

According to American officials, the United States refused to approve the F-16 sale until Sweden’s instruments of ratification for NATO membership arrived in Washington, D.C. This highlighted the extremely sensitive nature of the negotiations between the two countries.

For over a year, Turkey had delayed approving Sweden’s bid to join the alliance, along with neighboring Finland. The two Nordic nations had abruptly reversed decades of neutrality after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But Erdogan quickly objected, accusing Sweden of harboring Kurdish exile groups that Turkey considers terrorist organizations.

After months of fruitless talks, Sweden finally yielded to Ankara’s demands, tightening its anti-terrorism laws and extraditing some dissidents.

But Erdogan then shifted his focus to the unfulfilled American promise of F-16s, which faced growing resistance in the U.S. Congress over Turkey’s human rights record and escalating tensions with fellow NATO member Greece.

The powerful Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, had warned he would block the jet sale unless Turkey approved Sweden’s membership bid. On Friday, Cardin reluctantly agreed to lift his objections, saying this had been an agonizing decision.

According to American officials, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had intensely lobbied Erdogan during a visit to Turkey just after the devastating earthquakes in February 2023. He reportedly told the Turkish leader at least three times that there would be no new F-16s unless he stopped obstructing Sweden’s NATO accession. This high-stakes brinkmanship finally paid off on Tuesday, when Turkey’s parliament ratified Sweden’s membership, leaving only Hungary still opposed.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has invited his Swedish counterpart to Budapest to discuss Sweden’s bid, hinting at strains between the two counties. But Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has firmly stated he will not negotiate the terms of NATO membership with Hungary. Officials in Washington expect Hungary to delay the process a few more weeks before finally relenting.

They are optimistic of a flag-raising ceremony in Brussels during the next NATO summit in April, which will mark the 75th anniversary of the alliance founded after World War II.

Greece had also strongly protested the F-16 sale to its traditional rival Turkey, citing long standing disputes over borders and energy resources in the Mediterranean Sea. As a condition of the jet deal, Athens was simultaneously granted $8.6 billion worth of advanced F-35 stealth fighters, the newest and most lethal warplanes in America’s arsenal. This represented a massive upgrade for the Greek air force.

But could flooding this historic rivalry with advanced weapons cause more harm than good?

The convoluted series of concessions and payoffs among Turkey, Greece and Sweden underscored the increasingly complex geopolitical tensions roiling the NATO alliance as it faces its biggest crisis since the Cold War. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had sent defense planners scrambling to shore up the alliance’s eastern flank against potential aggression from Moscow.

But efforts to present a united front have been hampered by lingering grievances and competing priorities among the 30 member states. The drawn-out negotiations over Sweden and Finland’s bids for membership highlighted these divisions. Most dramatically, Erdogan’s willingness to delay approval for months left the two Nordic nations vulnerable to Russian threats and sabotaged Western leaders’ attempts to swiftly welcome them into the protective NATO fold.

Critics accused Erdogan of taking the rest of the alliance hostage to his domestic political agenda, particularly his desire to crush Kurdish dissident groups at home and abroad.

They argued Sweden had already addressed his reasonable concerns on terrorism, and that holding the NATO expansion hostage over the F-16s was cynical hostage-taking.

These complaints only deepened existing tensions between Turkey and other NATO members over human rights, democratic backsliding, and Ankara’s friendliness with the Kremlin.

But with Russia consolidating its gains in Ukraine, NATO could not afford to turn its back on Turkey – the alliance’s easternmost member and custodian of the strategically vital Black Sea straits.

The complex $23 billion F-16 deal was widely seen as the price that had to be paid to keep Turkey on board and out of Russia’s grasp. The Americans also secured guarantees from Athens not to veto the sale, preventing another rift in NATO’s vulnerable southern flank.

While potentially overpaying to keep Turkey in the fold, defenders argued the alternative would have been far worse. A spurned Turkey could have retaliated by vetoing NATO’s expansion, deepening cooperation with Russia, closing bases to American forces, or even leaving the alliance altogether.

Critics charged this amounted to appeasement of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian and erratic behavior. But with global tensions rising, realpolitik triumphed over principles in order to keep the decades-old NATO alliance intact.

For the Turkish air force, the F-16 deal with the Americans marked a major coup, offering an infusion of advanced fourth-generation fighters to replace their dwindling fleet of aging second and third-generation jets.

The 40 new planes and upgrade packages will significantly bolster Turkey’s overall air combat capabilities.

This was an urgent necessity after their ejection from the cutting-edge F-35 program in 2019 over the Russian S-400 missile purchase. The stealthy fifth-generation F-35s would have represented a quantum leap for Turkey’s air power. Losing that deal was a major blow, and put Erdogan on the defensive with his domestic audience.

Now, with tensions simmering on multiple borders, the arrival of new American F-16s will help Turkish generals sleep better at night. Their fighter pilots will enjoy improved radar, electronics, weapons systems and engines on the 40 new planes, as well as the 79 existing jets slated for upgrade.

Given Turkey’s vulnerable geographic position ringed by unstable neighbors, strong airpower serves as a crucial deterrent and insurance policy. With ambitious rivals like Greece also beefing up their aerial arsenals, Turkey was at growing risk of losing its critical military edge in the region.

In recent years, losing access to American components and maintenance support hindered efforts to keep Turkey’s F-16 fleet combat worthy. The new sales agreement will ensure access to spare parts and technical assistance, while also creating opportunities for technology transfer and industrial cooperation. This will help rebuild Turkey’s domestic military aviation sector, which has ambitious goals to develop homegrown fighter jets and drones.

On the political front, the deal also allows Erdogan to save face after his Syria fiasco and tell Turkish voters he has restored relations with Washington and stood firm on national security issues.

Given the F-16s’ emotional significance as symbols of Turkish power and sovereignty, branding them as proof of his diplomatic prowess offers Erdogan a political win.

The twisting saga showed that for all the turbulence in their relations, Turkey and America still need each other.

The F-16 sales agreement reflected a pragmatic compromise between their competing security interests.

Ankara gained leverage and hardware to defend its porous borders, while Washington locked in a strategically located partner.

Meanwhile Greece and Sweden overcame reservations to advance their own military capabilities and alliance ties.

Yet the awkward arms bazaar and brinkmanship risks deepening mistrust between NATO partners focused on their own rivalries.

Turkey’s hardball tactics exacerbated existing frustrations with its defiant unilateralism under Erdogan. While his sweeping electoral victories demonstrate his domestic appeal, his unpredictable maneuvering unnerves allies. There are concerns he is steering Turkey away from its western orientation and towards Russia’s authoritarian camp.

But the alternatives to keeping Turkey anchored in NATO appear far worse, necessitating a degree of unpalatable appeasement. Should Turkey one day slide into Moscow’s orbit, NATO’s southeastern flank would collapse. So for now, despite reservations, the alliance seems compelled to stick together and paper over its internal tensions in the face of looming external threats. But the awkward bargaining over F-16s showed that unity comes at an escalating price.

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