WASHINGTON ― Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent the ratification protocols for Sweden’s NATO accession to parliament this week, but it’s unclear whether that’s enough to lock down the $20 billion sale for 40 new F-16s that Ankara seeks.
That’s because the four key U.S. lawmakers who would need to greenlight the Block 70 F-16 fighter jets to Turkey are voicing concerns about other issues unrelated to Sweden’s NATO accession.
The chairs and ranking members of the foreign affairs committees in both the Senate and House can unilaterally place holds on arms sales. And as of right now, at least two of them won’t commit to signing off on the sale just yet.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ben Cardin, D-Md., told reporters Thursday he’s pleased to see Turkey moving positively on Sweden’s NATO bid, noting “it’s clear that they had to get this done before we would consider arms sales.”
“But there are other issues that we evaluate on arms sales,” Cardin added. “The use of the weapons systems, the human rights issues and concerns that we have. So there are other issues that we’ll be looking at.”
“But I don’t want to give any signals right now because we haven’t had those conversations with the administration,” he said. “I first want to hear from the administration.”
The U.S. State Department has yet to formally notify Congress of the Turkey F-16 sale, but national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in July that the Biden administration would move forward with the deal after Erdogan agreed to lift his hold on Sweden’s NATO membership.
The office of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
A spokesperson for Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the ranking member “looks forward to the Turkish parliament’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession, as well as the cessation of attacks on U.S. partners in the region, cooperation on countering illicit Russian financial flows and a de-escalation of tensions in the Aegean.”
“The transmission of these protocols alone has not changed his position, and he hopes they are immediately ratified and progress is made on all these issues,” Meeks’ spokesperson said.
Turkish airstrikes have bombarded civilian infrastructure in Kurdish-held northeast Syria, cutting of water and electricity throughout much of the area. The Turkish strikes have killed at least 218 civilians, according to the Kurdish-led administration, which is backed by roughly 900 U.S. troops stationed in Syria.
Turkey launched its latest campaign against northeast Syria earlier this month after a group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, attacked the Interior Ministry in Ankara, injuring two officers. The PKK is affiliated with the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria.
Turkey has previously used American-made F-16s it owns during its prior aerial attacks in northeast Syria. Turkey also stationed F-16s in Azerbaijan during the 2020 war with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan won that war, and more than 100,000 Armenians fled the area in September, a move Armenia has described as ethnic cleansing.
Asked by Defense News about Turkey’s actions in Syria and Azerbaijan, Sen. James Risch of Idaho — the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — said he has concerns. However, he added, he may still give the greenlight for the F-16s should Turkey ratify Sweden’s NATO membership.
Risch told reporters the Biden administration has not reached out to Congress since Erdogan submitted the ratification protocols to parliament, but said: “I don’t think they really need to since we have had long, detailed conversations about that. Everybody knows what the parameters were.”
While the F-16 sale still hangs in the balance, Turkey’s most significant obstacle to the deal is no longer a factor. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., lost his position as chairman of the foreign relations panel after the Justice Department unveiled a corruption indictment against him in September — the second of his political career. As such, Menendez has lost his authority to unilaterally hold up arms sales.
Menendez had vowed to hold the F-16 sale even if Turkey ratifies Sweden’s NATO accession, citing a litany of other issues. One of his most prominent concerns was Turkey’s repeated incursions into the airspace of fellow NATO ally Greece and its ongoing occupation of northern Cyprus.
The New Jersey Democrat has pleaded not guilty to charges indicating he accepted bribes from Egypt and in turn lobbied his Senate colleagues not to cut or condition U.S. military aid to Cairo. Menendez remains in the Senate and is seated on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.