Turkey killed the F-16 deal with the U.S. Congress - Howard Eissenstat

Turkey’s objection to Sweden and Finland joining NATO and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent rhetoric have pretty much killed a deal with the U.S. Congress for the purchase of new F-16 fighter jets, said Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle Eastern History at St.Lawrence University.

Before Ankara’s blocking of the Swedish and Finnish membership applications, the chances of the F-16 deal were better than even, Eissenstat said in an interview with Nervana Mahmoud for the Ahval podcast series, Turkish Trends.

There was a good chance that the Biden administration would be able to sell the deal as in U.S. national interests to Congress, but now it’s hardly imaginable, Eissenstat said.  

“It strikes me how badly this is played in terms of Turkey’s desire to reset the relations with the United States.”

Last year, Turkey made a formal request to purchase 40 of the latest F-16s and almost 80 modernisation kits for its existing warplanes from Lockheed Martin Corp, after Washington barred it from a programme to buy F-35 stealth fighter jets and imposed sanctions on its defence procurement agency in response to its $2.5 billion acquisition of Russian S-400 air defence missiles in 2019.

In a letter to Congress dated March 17, the U.S. State Department said a possible sale of the F-16s would be in the interests of the United States and NATO’s long-term unity.

“If we go back to two or three weeks earlier, the Biden administration was clearly trying to find some way of rebuilding and maintaining what's left for the Turkey-U.S. relationship,” Eissenstat said.

But whatever Biden might want, Turkey’s aggressive stance in the eastern Mediterranean and in particular, its current veto on Finland and Sweden, have dramatically reduced Turkey’s already low standing in Congress, he said.

Turkey is blocking Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership saying that the two countries need to halt support for Kurdish “terrorists” on their territory and lift weapons embargoes on Ankara.

What Erdoğan hasn’t really understood is how Congress works and the role of it, Eissenstat said.

Turkey believes that the United States is misunderstanding how valuable Turkey is, and in the end Turkey is in the driving seat, he said. “The United States needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the United States, in the view of the Turkish elite,” he said.

Eissenstat said that decision-making in Turkish foreign policy is now very much centred around the presidency, rather than run through the foreign ministry and professional diplomats.

“And for that reason, I think Turkey’s decision has to do with certain ambitions in terms of foreign policy and the ruling (Justice and Development Party) AKP’s domestic ambitions,” he said.

Erdoğan sees benefit in taking a hardline verbally, saying that Turkey’s needs should be addressed, and it never hurts in Turkish politics to be seen as taking a tough line in foreign policy, Eissenstat said.

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