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Biden administration asks US Congress to approve new weapons sales to Turkey

Ankara has sought to leverage its role in the Ukraine conflict to revive stalled arms deals with Washington
US President Joe Biden speaks with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Nato headquarters in Brussels, on 14 June 2021 (AFP)

The Biden administration has asked Congressional leaders to approve the upgrade of Turkey's F-16 fighter jet fleet, setting up a potential litmus test for further military sales to the Nato-ally.

US officials familiar with the request said the Biden administration may use the deal to gauge the level of support in Congress for a separate proposal to sell 40 new F-16s to Turkey, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Ties between Turkey and the West have come under strain over Ankara's military forays into Libya and Syria, along with its position on a range of festering maritime disputes with Greece. The country has also been criticised for backsliding on human rights issues.

But more recently, the conflict in Ukraine has overshadowed roadblocks in the relationship. Since the onset of fighting in Europe, Turkey has served as a mediator and has hosted two rounds of talks between Kyiv and Moscow. It has also supplied armed drones to Ukraine’s military and closed off the Bosphorus strait to some Russian warships.

Turkey has sought to use its role in the conflict and support for Ukraine to help revive ties with Washington and push through armaments deals that were cancelled after it purchased a Russian air-defence system in 2017.

In March, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged US President Joe Biden in a phone call to lift all "unjust" sanctions on Turkey's defence industry. 

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Turkey's purchase of the Russian-S-400 triggered the country's ejection from the US flagship F-35 fighter jet programme and the subsequent imposition of sanctions by Washington.

The notification sent to Congress asks lawmakers to approve the sale of missiles, radar and electronics for Turkey’s fighter jets. The deal, which includes AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and AIM-120 Amraam missiles, would cost Turkey more than $400m, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the request.

The Biden administration is expected to send a separate request to Congress to sell 40 new F-16s to Turkey, along with upgrades for the country's existing aircraft following a request by Ankara last year.

There have already been signals that the White House is pushing for the larger sale, as it looks to shore up the alliance following the invasion of Ukraine.

In March the Biden administration told Congress that the sale of new F-16 fighter jets would serve US national security interests and Nato's long-term unity.

But arms sales to Turkey are expected to face resistance from lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle in Washington.

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a vocal opponent of Ankara's S-400 deal with Russia and has critiqued the government in Ankara for human rights issues.

Last year, Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the pro-Greek Hellenic Caucus also objected to new arms sales to Turkey in letters to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.