Top US lawmaker opposes potential F-16 sale to Turkey

WASHINGTON, Jan 13 (Reuters) – The Biden administration has told Congress it is preparing a potential $20 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, sources familiar with the matter said on Friday, prompting an immediate objection from a senior US lawmaker who has long opposed the deal.

The State Department sent the informal notice to Congress on Thursday, three sources said, advising the committees overseeing arms sales in the Senate and House of Representatives of its intention to proceed with the proposed deal.

NATO member Turkey requested in October 2021 to buy 40 F-16 fighters from Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) and nearly 80 retrofit kits for its existing fighter jets. Technical talks between the two sides recently concluded.

The Biden administration has said it supports the sale and has been in informal contact with Congress for months to seek approval. However, it has so far failed to get the green light.

“As I have made clear on several occasions, I strongly oppose the Biden administration’s proposal to sell new F-16 aircraft to Turkey,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the committee. Senate Foreign Relations, in a statement.

While the sale is still in the informal review process, Congress is also unlikely to approve the sale as long as Turkey refuses to proceed with NATO ratification for Sweden and Finland. .

The two countries ended decades of neutrality last May and asked to join NATO in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but Turkey objected and accused the countries of harboring militants, including from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and demanded that action be taken.

TURKISH FOREIGN MINISTER ON THE WAY TO WASHINGTON

The notification, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, comes as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu prepares to travel to Washington on Wednesday for talks as the two NATO allies grapple with a multitude of disagreements, notably over Syria and arms purchases.

Following the informal review, a process where committee leaders can ask questions or raise concerns about the sale, the administration can technically proceed with a formal notification. But a senior U.S. official said it was “doubtful” the administration would be able to proceed unless Menendez waived his objection.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan failed to uphold human rights and democratic standards and engaged in “alarming and destabilizing behavior in Turkey and against neighboring NATO allies,” Menendez said in his statement.

“Until Erdogan stops his threats…and starts acting as a trusted ally, I will not approve of this sale.”

Menendez also said he welcomed news of the sale of a new F-35 fighter jet to Greece, calling Athens a “trusted NATO ally” and saying the sale “strengthens the capabilities of our two nations to uphold common principles, including our collective defense, democracy, human rights and the rule of law”.

Turkey’s 2019 acquisition of Russian air defense systems resulted in Ankara’s exclusion from the next-generation F-35 fighter jet program and upset the US Congress. Disagreements with Washington over Syria policy and Turkey’s deteriorating human rights and free speech record are also weighing on congressional sentiment.

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment, saying the department does not confirm or comment on proposed arms sales or transfers until the administration formally seeks congressional approval.

Under US law, Congress can block a sale by passing a resolution of disapproval after formal notification of a sale, but it is unlikely to do so if President Joe Biden decides to go for it. forward despite the objections of lawmakers. Although Congress has passed such resolutions in the past, it has never mustered the necessary two-thirds majorities in both houses to overcome a presidential veto.

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Patricia Zengerle and Mike Stone; Editing by Josie Kao and William Mallard

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