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Can F-16 Sale Signal A New Era In Turkish-US Relations?

11.02.2024 21:12

Some analysts think ‘it’s too early’ to say all disputes will be resolved while others say two NATO allies still maintain ‘positive strategic relationship’

The US' approval of the long-stalled sale of F-16 fighter jets to Türkiye shortly after Turkish parliament's ratification of Sweden's NATO membership has been seen by many as some boost to strained ties between two NATO allies.

However, some caution that it may be "too early" to conclude that all disputes will be resolved, while others emphasize that the allies still maintain a "positive strategic relationship."

The US State Department approved the $23 billion sale of F-16 aircraft and modernization kits to Türkiye, sending formal notification to Congress on Jan. 27. During the 15-day period of congressional review, no objections were raised by Congress, indicating that the sale has been approved.

The notification was sent hours after Türkiye submitted documents related to its approval of Sweden's NATO membership protocol to Washington.

The significant move came amid strained relations between Ankara and Washington in recent years due to a number of issues, including the US support for the YPG terror group in Syria, disagreements over Türkiye's purchase of Russia's S-400 air defense system, which led to Türkiye's removal from the F-35 program and Washington's sanctions on Ankara.

*There have not been any major military sales between the two NATO allies for nearly a decade, since the US approved the $320-million sale of AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM missiles and associated equipment in August 2014 and $111-million sale of Super Cobra Attack Helicopters in October 2011. Washington rebuffed Ankara's request to buy Patriot missiles during that period. The F-16 sale has been widely regarded as a significant step towards rebuilding trust between the two nations.

According to Murat Aslan, a political scientist at Hasan Kalyoncu University and a researcher at Ankara-based SETA foundation, it is "too early to say that everything has been resolved in terms of disputes between two countries", but the F-16 sale is the "first step" after decades.

Drawing attention to global developments, including the Russian-Ukraine war and emerging risks in Middle East, Aslan noted the importance of Türkiye's role and mediation efforts, which he sees as consistent with US interests.

On the sale of F-16 fighter jets, Aslan told Anadolu that the two countries agreed on "terms of future relations," because "procurements build long term relations between countries."

According to Wilson Center Middle East Program Chair James Jeffrey, Türkiye and the US have been allies for over 70 years. He said the two countries are now working "very closely" in a number of areas, including the Ukraine war, Gaza conflict and on tensions with Iran.

"The F-16 sale and Türkiye's independent decision to move forward on Sweden's NATO accession are two more examples of the ability of the two sides to work together for the common good," he told Anadolu.

Jeffrey said Türkiye and the US are "very powerful partners", just like the US relations with France or Japan, although there are some "friction points", such as the presence of YPG and American forces in northeast Syria.

"There are always frictions between two major states or even minor states," he said, adding that the Turkish-US relationship is a "very positive strategic relationship."

When asked by Anadolu about the significance of Türkiye's approval of Sweden's NATO bid in terms of relations between Ankara and Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said the US views Türkiye as a "key NATO ally", and looks forward to "continuing to have a close collaborative relationship" with Türkiye in "a number of key areas."

Major disagreement

The major disagreement between Ankara and Washington is the US' support for YPG terror group, which was later renamed as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and is seen by the US as a partner in the fight against Daesh/ISIS.

Türkiye, however, has never accepted the US support for the YPG because of its ties to the PKK, which has been listed as a terror organization by Türkiye, the US and EU. PKK is responsible for the deaths of 40,000 people during the course of more than 30 years of terror campaign against Türkiye.

Asked about his expectations regarding this disagreement, Aslan said he is neither optimistic nor pessimistic.

"We have to understand the root causes of the disagreements with the eyeglasses of both countries," Aslan said, noting Türkiye's concerns over the US support to YPG, and described those security concerns as "existential."

"The US must satisfy the expectations of an ally, Türkiye, that the US should stop providing support to PKK," Aslan added.

Jeffrey, who served as the US' special representative to Syria in 2018-2020, explained that the US declared PKK to be a terrorist group and supported Türkiye "more than any other country" in its fight against the PKK.

"It's also critically important to stop the advance of Russia and Iran through the region," he said, noting the recent attacks against US forces by Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria.

According to him, if the US were to give up its relationship with the YPG that will leave a vacuum in northeast Syria.

Asked if the US can cooperate with its NATO ally Türkiye in northern Syria, Jeffrey said the option was discussed in early 2019 during talks in the Pentagon, adding that it was "very difficult to see a way forward."

Asked about the possibility that the US troops stay in Syria while stopping partnership with YPG, Jeffrey said they looked at that option too in 2019, and concluded that they will either work with YPG or leave northeast Syria.

According to a deal signed in 2019 between Ankara and Washington, the US agreed to make YPG/PKK terrorists move 30 kilometers (18 miles) away from the Turkish border, which, according to Turkish officials, is never implemented.

Under the agreement reached on Oct. 17, 2019, Türkiye agreed to pause its Operation Peace Spring, which it launched to secure its borders, for 120 hours to allow the withdrawal of YPG/PKK terrorists.

Jeffrey claimed that the YPG forces withdrew from that block in the Operation Peace Spring area of northeast Syria, adding that the "basic cease-fire agreement is holding."

"What isn't folding is the Sochi agreement done the same month, October 2019, between Russia and Türkiye," he said, referring to the Oct. 22, 2019 agreement which required YPG/PKK to pull back 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) south of Türkiye's border with Syria within 150 hours.

"The Russians never have done a thing, and so to the extent you've got serious, SDF forces up close to your border in the northeast, those are in the areas that the Russians assumed responsibility for in October 2019 when we pulled our troops out," he added. -

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