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Turkey's Erdogan urges Biden to lift 'unjust' sanctions on defence industry

With Russian invasion front and centre, Turkish leader looks to push through F-16 request
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and US President Joe Biden attending a meeting during the G20 Summit in Rome, on 31 October 2021 (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged US President Joe Biden on Thursday to lift all "unjust" sanctions on Turkey's defence industry. 

According to a statement from Erdogan's office, he also told Biden that Turkey expected its request to purchase 40 new F-16 fighter jets and modernise its existing fleet to be finalised as soon as possible.

Ankara had ordered more than 100 F-35s from the US but was removed from the programme in 2019 after it acquired Russian S-400 missile defence systems. Its defence industry was subsequently sanctioned by the US in December 2020.

Turkey's purchase of the S-400 is subject to the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which seeks to penalise any foreign government for working with the Russian defence sector.

The US has argued that the Russian missiles pose a threat to the F-35 plane and strongly objects to their use within the Nato alliance, while Ankara denies they pose any security threat, insisting that they would be used independently and not integrated into the alliance's systems.

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Turkey has maintained that it only sought the Russian-made system after it tried, without success, to purchase the American Patriot missile defence system.

In September, Turkey sent the US a letter of request to purchase 40 F-16s and 80 modernisation kits.

Turkey was Nato's wayward member, then came the crisis in Ukraine
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A readout of Thursday's call from the White House did not mention a discussion about sanctions or Turkey's request regarding the F-16s.

But it said Erdogan and Biden had talked about opportunities to strengthen ties, in addition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki described the call as "constructive", saying they spoke for roughly an hour.

Over the past years, Turkey has emerged as a pariah in the halls of Congress, with lawmakers concerned over Ankara's ties with Moscow, disagreements on Syria policy and a crackdown on dissent.

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine has brought Turkey's strategic role in Nato back into focus.

Ankara, a key supporter of Ukraine's territorial integrity, has sent armed drones to the country and recently invoked the Montreux Convention to regulate the passage of warships through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.

A European Nato official recently told Middle East Eye that Turkey had proven itself a "credible and important ally" during the lead up to Russia’s invasion.

Still, Erdogan has tried to keep a balance between the West and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he has formed an uneasy partnership with in order to manage differences in hotspots from the Caucasus to North Africa.

Russians made up the largest number of visitors in Turkey's tourism sector in 2020 and Moscow supplies the country with more than a third of its natural gas and more than half of its grain imports. 

Last month, when pressed about imposing sanctions on Russia, Turkey's ambassador to the US, Murat Mercan, pushed back, saying: "There is no nice world where you sanction somebody and you don't get affected."

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