Turkey's sweet F-16s deal

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Turkey finally got the greenlight to proceed with a long-awaited deal — the acquisition of F-16 fighter jets from the United States — after months of uncertainty. On January 26, the US approved the sale of 40 new F-16s worth USD 23 billion in total. The deal also includes the equipment to modernize Turkey's 79 existing F-16s. The news of the deal arrived one day after Turkey's parliament finally voted to approve Sweden's bid to join NATO.

According to The New York Times, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated the Turkey wouldn't be getting the deal less it approved Sweden's bid at least three times in the past year during intense negotiations with Turkey.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), fiercely opposed the country's bid to join the alliance less Sweden met Turkey's demands, including banning pro-Kurdish demonstrations in Sweden and extraditing various individuals Turkey labels as terrorists.

A Quran-burning incident in Sweden last year, in which a far-right politician publicly burned the holy book, only exacerbated relations between the two countries.

The 20-month delay of Sweden's accession bid did bear results for Turkey. According to Reuters, in addition to agreements to lift arms embargoes, Turkey also got Sweden and Finland (the two countries applied to become NATO members at the same time, with Finland joining the alliance in April 2023) to adopt measures against members of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Gulen movement (FETO) — both designated as terrorist organizations by official Ankara.

But none of these agreements and deals were as important to President Erdoğan as securing the deal on F-16s. As seasoned journalist Amberin Zaman put it: “Turkey’s complaints about Sweden were more of a foil for its real goal, which was to get the F-16s.”

In December 2023, speaking to journalists, Erdoğan also alluded to the jets being more important: “Positive developments we expect both on [procuring US] F-16s and Canada's promises [on lifting its arms embargo] would help our parliament to have a positive approach on Sweden… All of them are linked.”

Canada, also a NATO member, “agreed to re-open talks with Turkey on lifting export controls on drone parts, including optical equipment,” in July 2023.

An anticlimactic success

Despite Erdoğan's claims, the jet acquisition may not prove as big a deal as officials hoped. F16 fighter jets have essentially lost their place to F-35s, which are newer and more capable fighter jets. Until 2019, Turkey was part of the global F-35 Joint Strike Fighter partnership but was removed by the Pentagon when it decided to purchase Russian S-400s defense systems the same year. The following year, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey's Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB), including “a ban on all US export licenses and authorizations to SSB and an asset freeze and visa restrictions on Dr. Ismail Demir, SSB’s president, and other SSB officers,” according to theUS State Department press statement.

Sinan Ciddi, author, academic, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow on Turkey at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, believes that in addition to alienating itself inside the NATO alliance and embittering its relations with the US, Turkey “gained nothing from holding up Sweden’s accession. The F-16 sale that has now been authorized could have been achieved 20 months earlier had Erdoğan approved Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO when they first applied.”

Or, in the words of retired Turkish diplomat Selim Kuneralp, Turkey settled for a donkey after riding a horse: “Greece will have the state-of-the-art F35s, and we will have the ‘face-lifted’ model of the 40-year-old F16s. It would be beneficial for our politicians to show unusual discretion until the F16 project is realized,” wrote Kuneralp in an op-ed. 

In addition to approving the sale of F-16 jets to Turkey, the US also approved the sale of 20 F-35s to Greece — Turkey's longtime rival. Relations between both countries have significantly improved in the last year after a low point in 2022 when President Erdoğan threatened Athens with missiles. The tense relations were a concern at the US State Department, which was eager to see “assurances from Turkey that it would de-escalate any tensions with the Greek military in the Aegean Sea,” wrote the New York Times. Whether these assurances stay in place, however, remains to be seen.

Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think-tank, tweeted that it is “wrong to be happy” about the deal. “This result cannot compensate for Turkey's exclusion from the F35 program.” The country's decision to purchase S400 “was perhaps one of the most costly mistakes of the AK Party's foreign policy.”

Others criticized the approval of the deal in light of Turkey's human rights record and a list of other concerns, including Ankara's support for Hamas and President Erdoğan's cordial ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A hashtag campaign on Twitter under #NoJetsForTurkey called on the US administration to refrain from selling the jets, citing security concerns for the regional neighbors unless there is “a mechanism that would hold Ankara accountable for the way it chooses to use the fighters.”
That, however may ring hollow as Turkey may even have the opportunity to return to F-35 club. The potential return was mentioned by the US Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland on her visit to Turkey this week. “If we could get through this S-400 issue, which we would like to do, the US would be delighted to welcome Turkey back into the F-35 family,” Nuland reportedly said on CNNTurk television on January 29.

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