US senator wants change from Turkey before F-16 sale approval
PHOTO CAPTION: An F-16C Fighting Falcon with the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard is seen during a training exercise July 5, 2017, in Atlantic City, N.J. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Cristina J. Allen)
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior U.S. senator who has long opposed the potential sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey said on Tuesday he wants Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to take a “less belligerent” stance toward NATO allies and Turkey's neighbors before lifting his opposition to the deal.
"Now what's important is how does Erdogan want to move into the future with Turkey. If he wants to change course from where he's been, I look forward to seeing that," Democrat Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters in the wake of Erdogan's election victory.
"If it's the same, or more of the same, as what we've seen then I'll still have the same positions as I've had before," Menendez said.
NATO member Turkey requested in October 2021 to buy $20 billion of Lockheed Martin Corp F-16 fighters and nearly 80 modernization kits for its existing warplanes. President Joe Biden's administration has said it supports the sale and has been in touch for months with Congress to win its approval.
But it has faced opposition, notably from Menendez, over a range of issues, including Turkey's resistance to the ratification of Sweden's NATO membership, concerns about the jailing of journalists and other human rights abuses, and Turkish overflights of Greek airspace.
"Sweden is only part of the equation. For some members, it may be the whole equation. It's not for me," Menendez said.
Menendez said he had not heard from Biden about Turkey since the president's congratulatory call to Erdogan. Erdogan repeated Ankara's desire to buy the F-16s, while Biden told him Washington wanted Ankara to drop its objection to Sweden's joining NATO.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Turkey on Tuesday to immediately finalize Sweden's accession to NATO, and rejected the suggestion that the Biden administration is linking Turkey's approval of Sweden's NATO accession to the F-16 sale.
During the informal review process for major weapons sales, the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees can put "holds" on the deals, stopping them over issues including human rights concerns.
Menendez said Blinken has assured him he will respect his hold.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Stephen Coates)