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US advances fighter jet sale to Turkey, Greece; Congress likely to approve

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: An F-16 fighter jet takes off during a media day of NATO’s “Air Defender 23” military exercise at Spangdahlem U.S. Air Base near the German-Belgian border in Spangdahlem, Germany June 14, 2023. REUTERS/Jana Rodenbusch/File Photo

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday formally informed Congress of its intention to proceed with the $23 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, taking a major step toward completing a long-delayed process that tested ties with Ankara.

The State Department sent the notification to advance the sale of 40 Lockheed Martin (NYSE:) F-16s and nearly 80 modernization kits to Turkey, a day after Ankara fully completed ratification of the NATO membership of Sweden, a move that became directly linked to the jet sales.

The Biden administration simultaneously advanced the sale of 20 Lockheed F-35 stealth fighter jets to fellow NATO ally Greece, an $8.6-billion deal that Washington advanced as it tries to strike a balance between two alliance members with a history of tense relations.

Turkey first made the request for the jets in October 2021, but Ankara’s delay in approving the ratification of Sweden’s NATO bid had been a major obstacle to winning congressional approval for the sale.

Following 20 months of delay, the Turkish parliament earlier this week ratified Sweden’s NATO bid, and subsequently U.S. President Joe Biden wrote a letter to key congressional committee leaders, urging them to approve the F-16 sale “without delay.”

The State Department’s Friday night notification came only a day after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan gave his final sign-off on Sweden’s ratification, and hours after the instrument of accession was delivered to Washington.

“My approval of Turkey’s request to purchase F-16 aircrafts has been contingent on Turkish approval of Sweden’s NATO membership. But make no mistake: This was not a decision I came to lightly,” said Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one of four key committees that needs to approve arms transfers.

Turkey needs to urgently improve its human rights record, cooperate better on holding Russia accountable for its invasion in Ukraine and help lower the temperature in the Middle East, Cardin listed.

“My concerns have been strongly and consistently conveyed to the Biden administration as part of our ongoing engagement, and I am encouraged by the productive direction of their discussions with Turkish officials to address these issues,” he said.

Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees review every major foreign arms sale. They regularly ask questions or raise concerns over human rights or diplomatic issues that can delay or stop such deals.

Following the transfer of the formal notification by the State Department, the Congress has 15 days to object to the sale, after which it is considered final.

U.S. officials do not expect the Congress to block either sale, despite criticism of Turkey by some members.