An armed and ready Turkish F-16. Photo: AFP / Andalou Agency

A fight is brewing between US President Joe Biden’s administration and Congress over Turkey’s request to purchase F-16 fighter aircraft.

Congressional leaders, upset at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for buying Russian arms and for human-rights violations under his authoritarian system, have expressed their strong opposition. The Turkish request for 40 new aircraft and upgrade kits for existing F-16s comes after the US decision to kick Turkey out of the F-35 fifth-generation aircraft program.

Turkey’s air force is composed almost exclusively of 260 fourth-generation US-made F-16s. Turkey was well placed to make the necessary transition to the F-35 with its advanced stealth technology.

Ankara was not only scheduled to purchase 100 of these fighters but it was also set to become a manufacturing locale for important parts of the aircraft as well as a maintenance hub for F-35s operating in other NATO allies. Both activities would have provided Turkey with technology transfer and an opportunity for earning sizable foreign-exchange revenues.

All this collapsed when Turkey ordered advanced Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles despite repeated and unequivocal warnings from both the executive and legislative branches of the US government.

The US feared that a Turkish S-400 purchase would enable the Russians to glean information on the F-35s’ stealth capabilities. Dire US admonitions notwithstanding, Erdogan went ahead and took delivery of the Russian system in 2019.

He probably assumed that the US, as it had always done in the past, would eventually find a way to acquiesce to his wishes. He simply was wrong; he had completely misunderstood the mood in Washington.

This was a costly error that also drew US punishment under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Overnight, Turkey lost out on all the program’s economic benefits and found itself with an air force saddled with fighters that would soon be outclassed by those of its rivals. Hence the panicked intermediate request last year for F-16s.

The case for and against selling the F-16s is complicated. Congressional leaders have lost confidence in Erdogan and his government. While they are long-standing NATO allies, friction between Ankara and Washington has reached a rare peak.

The barrage of anti-Americanism emanating from the Turkish government alone has been an important contributor to the public’s unfavorable view of the US. Turkey under Erdogan has been a revisionist actor in its region, challenging, sometimes forcibly, efforts by Greece, Cyprus and Israel to market newly found natural gas to Europe.

Erdogan’s descent into authoritarianism has seen him use the judiciary and security services to jail opponents, including journalists, intellectuals and civil-society leaders on at best spurious grounds. From this viewpoint, congressional opposition is perfectly understandable.

Yet there is another perspective. For better or for worse, Turkey is a NATO ally and will remain so. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, global politics are rapidly evolving in an unpredictable direction. The US has, therefore, an interest in Turkey maintaining a robust air force.

The F-16 deal is with Turkey, not Erdogan. The F-16s would be in service long after Erdogan exits the political scene.

Paradoxically, selling the F-16s could accomplish much of what the US Congress would like to see, and more.

First, the deal would close the door on the F-35 program. In fact, the request for the F-16s has been a humiliating experience for Erdogan. After the tough US reaction to the S-400 purchase, he doubled down by suggesting that he would buy another such battery and, if the US refused to sell fighter jets, he would simply procure them from Russia instead.

Now, the Ukraine war makes it hard to contemplate anyone buying anything from Russia, much less sophisticated military equipment. In other words, he is stuck. This presents the US with an opportunity not just to turn the tables on Erdogan but also to attach some real conditions to this purchase.

With his economy in the doldrums and an election pending, Erdogan has been on a charm offensive as he tries to improve relations with all the countries he alienated with his policies, starting with the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In sheathing his revisionist and bombastic approach, he is reversing course. 

This should also apply to relations with the US. Washington must insist there will be a price to pay when Erdogan’s ministers and allies call the US Turkey’s main enemy. Along with this, the Biden administration should push Turkey to halt its domestic repression and release political opponents from prison. The administration can play good cop, bad cop by arguing that only such moves would make the F-16 deal acceptable to Capitol Hill.

State Department Undersecretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in Ankara recently to ink a vague new strategic concept with Turkey. This could provide the framework under which these changes can be advanced. If it works, this will be a win for both Congress and the White House. 

Still, this is not going to be easy, as many minds in Washington must be changed. Erdogan is mistaken if he thinks the Ukraine crisis will give him a pass. Only a genuine shift on his part will produce a desired transformation in the quality of the mutual relationship. 

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Henri J Barkey

Henri J Barkey is the Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. He previously served as a member of the US State Department’s policy planning staff, working primarily on issues related to the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean and intelligence.