F-16 sale, Syria, NATO on agenda as top US, Turkey diplomats meet
The meeting is the first official US visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu since the Biden administration took office.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken is hosting Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington, DC for a meeting expected to be dominated by a potential sale of F-16 fighter jets and Turkey’s refusal to approve Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession.
The meeting on Wednesday represented the first official visit by Turkey’s top diplomat since US President Joe Biden took office nearly two years ago – something observers have said may reflect the complicated relationship between the two countries. Blinken and Cavusoglu have met before on the sidelines of NATO summits and United Nations meetings.
“We are close allies and partners,” Blinken said at the start of the meeting, “that doesn’t mean we don’t have differences, but when we have differences, precisely because we are allies and partners, we work through them.”
Prior to the meeting, US and Turkish officials said the main topics would be Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Syria, and energy cooperation.
The US has praised Turkey for some of its actions in the wake of Russia’s invasion, in particular the mediation of grain corridor talks.
However, worries persist about Ankara’s deepening relationship with Moscow. Ties between the NATO allies have strained since Turkey acquired Russian missile defence systems in 2019, which led to Ankara’s removal from the next-generation F-35 fighter jet programme.
Turkey now hopes to buy F-16 jets from the US, a sale that some top members of Congress oppose despite support from the Biden administration.
Speaking at the top of the meeting, Cavusoglu referenced the possible sale, saying, “We expect approval in the line with our joint strategic interest.”
The Turkish official said the duo would also discuss “how we can strengthen our … cooperation in our fight against terrorism”, while directly referencing ISIL (ISIS) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK – both groups Ankara sees as threats from beyond its southern border with Syria.
US officials have grown increasingly concerned about Turkey’s possible aim to carry out a new cross-border military operation against Kurdish armed groups, as well as its intent to normalise ties with Damascus.
Meanwhile, Turkey has been the main roadblock to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, which requires the approval of all 30 member states. Turkey and Hungary have yet to endorse the applications.
Turkey has accused the countries of harbouring Kurdish groups it deems “terrorists”. It said Sweden, in particular, must first take a clearer stance against these groups, as well as individuals it blames for a 2016 coup attempt.
Erdogan said on Monday that the two countries had to deport or extradite up to 130 “terrorists” to Turkey before parliament would approve their requests to join NATO. Officials from the Nordic countries have said the demands go too far.
On Tuesday, Finland said it hoped the Turkish foreign minister’s US visit would help to clear the impasse.
The meeting comes after the US Department of State informally notified the US Senate and House of Representative committees that oversee arms sales of its intention to proceed with the $20bn sale of F-16s to Turkey.
The move triggered a barrage of statements from members of Congress opposing the deal, including from Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose leaders review major foreign military sales.
In a statement to the Reuters news agency, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said “[Turkish President Tayyip] Erdogan’s … repeated attacks on our Syrian Kurdish allies, and continued cozying up to Russia – including delaying Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership – remain serious causes for concern.”
“As I’ve said before, for Turkey to receive the F-16s, we need assurances that these concerns will be addressed,” he added.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser, told reporters on Saturday that Washington’s demands relating to the supply of the fighter jets were “endless”.
He added he hoped the F-16 deal would not become “hostage” to the NATO memberships of Sweden and Finland.
While Congress can block foreign arms sales, it must do so through legislation. Legislators have not previously mustered the two-thirds majorities in both chambers required to overcome a presidential veto.