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F-16 sale to Turkey would serve Nato interests, says US official

Senior State Department official calls Turkey's support for Ukraine 'an important deterrent to malign influence in the region' in letter to Congress
An aerobatic aircraft pilot performs with a General Dynamics F-16 Solo Turk during the 5th Sivrihisar Airshow in Sivrihisar district of Eskisehir, in Turkey, on 13 September, 2020 (AFP)

The Biden administration has told the US Congress in a letter that the potential sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey would serve US national security interests and Nato's long-term unity, particularly in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Turkey made a request in October to the United States to buy 40 Lockheed Martin-made F-16 fighters and nearly 80 modernisation kits for its existing warplanes.

Turkey's defence ties with the US came under strain after Ankara purchased Russian S-400 missile defence systems in 2017.

The country was removed from the US F-35 fighter jet program, and Ankara's order of more than 100 of the stealth aircraft was cancelled. Its defence industry was subsequently sanctioned by the US in December 2020.

The March 17 letter, first reported by Reuters, is signed by the State Department's top legislative official, Naz Durakoglu, and is addressed to Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone.

Turkey was Nato's wayward member, then came the crisis in Ukraine
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The correspondence followed efforts made by 50 bipartisan lawmakers in February, led by Pallone, urging the Biden administration to reject Ankara's purchase of the F-16s, over what they said was Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's lack of commitment to Nato and his "vast human rights abuses".

In her reply, Durakoglu acknowledged the ongoing tensions with Turkey but also highlighted Ankara’s support for, and defence ties with Ukraine as "an important deterrent to malign influence in the region".

"The Administration believes that there are nonetheless compelling long-term NATO alliance unity and capability interests, as well as U.S. national security, economic and commercial interests that are supported by appropriate U.S. defense trade ties with Turkey," the letter said.

While Turkey has refused to sign up to Western sanctions against Russia, the country is a vocal backer of Ukrainian sovereignty and has sold Kyiv armed drones. It is also mediating between the two sides of the conflict. 

In recent weeks Erdogan has attempted to harness the pivotal role his country has played in Ukraine to demand relief from US sanctions.

According to a statement from Erdogan's office, the Turkish leader urged Biden to lift all "unjust" sanctions against the country's defence industry in a call last month.

The State Department letter noted that Turkey had already paid "a significant price" for its purchase of the S-400, but didn’t say whether the F-16 deal would be approved or provide a timeline for the sale.