Eyeing US F-16 deal, Turkey in no rush to back Sweden's NATO bid, sources say
PHOTO CAPTION: A Swedish Amphibious Raider navigates to a reconnaissance position during a simulated operation at Camp Pendleton, California, Aug. 30, 2023. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David Cordova via U.S. Defense Visual Information Distribution Service)
By Jonathan Spicer, Huseyin Hayatsever and Tuvan Gumrukcu
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey is willing to hold off ratifying Sweden's bid to join NATO this month as it awaits signs of U.S. support for its own request to buy F-16 jets, sources said, potentially disappointing bloc allies hoping to end 17 months of delay.
President Tayyip Erdogan elated a NATO summit in July by promising to send the bid to Turkey's parliament for ratification when it reopened in October, appearing to green-light Sweden after having raised objections over its alleged harbouring of terrorists.
However since parliament opened on Oct. 1, its foreign affairs commission, which would debate the NATO bid, has received almost 60 international agreements to review - excluding Sweden's, official data shows.
Two people familiar with the situation said Ankara wanted to move in tandem with Washington, where the State Department is expected at some time to seek congressional approval for a $20-billion sale of F-16 fighters to Turkey and dozens of modernisation kits.
"Given the lack of trust over the issue of F-16s and Sweden, Turkey is not rushing to ratify the NATO bid and looking for a sign that the United States is taking steps at the same time," said an official from Erdogan's ruling AK Party.
A second person familiar with U.S.-Turkish talks said a rough proposal - in which each side would take steps toward ratifying the NATO bid on the one side, and the F-16s purchase on the other - had been delayed.
Erdogan's office did not immediately comment on a time frame for Sweden's ratification or on any U.S. talks.
The U.S. State Department looked forward to Sweden joining NATO "in the near future", a spokesperson said, and that President Joe Biden backed the F-16s sale in the interest of the alliance, the United States and its relationship with Turkey."
"(W)e should do both of these things," the spokesperson said.
IN NO RUSH
Turkey, NATO's second-biggest military, is still expected to ultimately endorse Sweden's bid and could rapidly move on it.
But Turkish officials and foreign diplomats say Erdogan is in no rush, especially after a bomb attack in Ankara on the day parliament opened and, days later, the downing of an unmanned Turkish drone by the United States in northern Syria.
Addressing the drone incident, which occurred near U.S. troops on Oct. 5, Erdogan said last week: "Isn't Turkey a NATO ally of the U.S.? ...How can we explain this? Only when it suits them, they call themselves partners".
Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO last year after Russia invaded Ukraine. Finnish membership was sealed in April, marking an historic expansion of the Western defence bloc, but Sweden's bid remains held up by Turkey and Hungary.
Turkey says Sweden must take more steps at home to clamp down on the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the European Union and United States also deem a terrorist group.
After meeting NATO counterparts in Brussels on Friday, Turkish Defence Minister Yasar Guler told reporters Sweden was expected to implement new counter-terrorism measures, adding parliament "would have the final say" on ratification.
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said on Friday he was convinced the process to join NATO will be resolved "reasonably soon," given Stockholm has fulfilled all commitments in a deal signed last year with Ankara and Helsinki.
But Erdogan appears willing to leverage the situation for other gains. Last month, he openly floated exchanging Sweden's ratification for the U.S. go-ahead to upgrade Turkey's F-16 fleet.
With Washington keen to expand NATO, senior U.S. and Turkish officials had sketched out a plan in which Erdogan would send the NATO proposal to parliament and the State Department would ask leaders of the U.S. Senate and House foreign affairs committees to review the F-16 deal, the second source said.
But hopes for a swift approval took a blow on Oct. 1 when the PKK claimed responsibility for the bomb attack near Ankara government buildings.
In response, Turkey redoubled strikes on militant targets in Iraq and Syria, where the United States is allied with some Kurdish fighters, leading to the drone incident.
After that, the second source said, discussions quieted down on the U.S.-Turkish proposal to move roughly in parallel.
While the White House endorses the sale of the Lockheed Martin Corp F-16s, there are objections in Congress over Turkey delaying NATO enlargement and its human rights record.
Another potential strain in U.S.-Turkish ties emerged last week in Israel's war against Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Erdogan - long supportive of Palestinians and a two-state solution - said that a U.S. aircraft carrier that arrived in the eastern Mediterranean was meant to commit "serious massacres" in the Gaza Strip.
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Riyadh and Simon Johnson in Stockholm; Editing by Bernadette Baum)