The Biden administration reportedly will ask Congress to approve a $20 billion sale of F-16s to Turkey , coupled with a separate sale of F-35 fighters to Greece . The White House is half right: Greece should receive the next generation joint strike fighter, but Turkey still does not deserve new F-16s .
President Joe Biden entered office promising neither to appease President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor to mollify his temper tantrums. Whereas President Barack Obama called Erdogan one of his most trusted friends and President Donald Trump said he was a “big fan” of the Turkish strongman, Biden waited more than three months to call his Turkish counterpart.
Soon, Biden’s national security team began to chip away at his resolve, though, and walk back his promises. Erdogan was furious that Congress had rejected an F-35 sale to Turkey after Erdogan purchased Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft system, a move that undermined NATO security in general and the F-35 in particular. Rather than hold Erdogan accountable for his actions, Biden sought to appease Erdogan’s grievance by providing him upgraded F-16s.
Here’s the problem: Rather than enhance peace, any augmentation of Turkey’s air force will undermine regional security. Turkey sees the Ukraine war as an opportunity to profit, not as a fight for freedom.
Today, Erdogan uses his air force not to patrol the Black Sea, but to bomb Kurdish villages in Iraq and Syria. Turkish F-16s continue to harass Yezidis seeking to recover from the trauma of the Islamic State.
Erdogan has also forward deployed F-16s to Azerbaijan which openly threatens to overrun Armenia. F-16 overflights of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea have become a daily occurrence leading to regional fears they are part of a dry run for an invasion. To give Turkey F-16s makes about as much strategic sense as giving Russia missiles to hit Ukraine or providing Hezbollah with suicide vests.
What makes the latest White House proposal different is that Biden’s team wants to overcome Congressional opposition both by offering Greece a qualitative military edge and by tying the sale to Turkey dropping its objection to the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO.
Both Finland and Sweden could augment NATO’s capability. Their entrance into NATO would also symbolize Europe’s unity. Rewarding Turkish extortion and encouraging future Erdogan blackmail, however, would offset any gain they might bring to the alliance.
Congress should go ahead with the F-35 sale to Greece, but it should condition any new F-16s or upgrade packages for Turkey on certain conditions: the end to Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus, a withdrawal of Turkish forces from Iraq and northern Syria, an end to overflights of Greek islands, and lifting the blockade against Armenia. Short of a change in Erdogan’s behavior, prudence dictates that both the Turkish component of the arms sale and NATO expansion wait until there is regime change in Turkey.