The F-16 sale could prevent further deterioration in Turkish-U.S. ties, though it’s too early to predict a new chapter
Following Türkiye’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership in the Turkish Parliament, the U.S. State Department notified Congress of a $23 billion (TL 698.52 billion) sale of fighter jets to Türkiye and an $8.6 billion sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets to Greece, another ally in the NATO. The sale to Türkiye includes 40 Lockheed Martin F-16s and equipment to modernize the existing fleet of 79 F-16s. Greece will receive 40 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters and related equipment.
If the U.S. Congress does not object to selling F-16 fighter jets to Türkiye within the next 10 days, a long-standing dispute between the two countries will be resolved. However, many unresolved issues remain in the Turkish-American relationship. Türkiye’s exclusion from the F-35 program due to its purchase of S-400 from Russia and the continuation of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions against Türkiye for this reason, the transformation of the U.S.’ temporary partnership with the PKK terrorist group’s Syrian wing YPG into a permanent relationship, diverging strategic approaches toward Russia and different priorities in the Middle East region have become clear evidence that the strategic alliance relationship model between the two countries is no longer valid.
Despite all the disagreements, the two capitals seem determined to maintain their relations. How this will be possible remains an unanswered question. Recent strategic shifts in the Middle East region and the U.S. quest for strategic updates in its foreign and security policies recapitalize the strategic importance of Turkish-American relations. However, both capitals should first rethink how to overcome the deep crisis between the two countries.
The terrorism factor
The first point of contention between the two countries is the U.S. engagement with the YPG terrorist organization in Syria. Ankara sees the YPG as a vital strategic threat. The military and political relationship between the YPG, which the U.S. uses as a local partner in Syria, and the PKK, the terrorist organization that Türkiye has been fighting against for 40 years, is defined as a primary security concern for Türkiye’s national security. The U.S. military aid to the YPG is used in the PKK’s terror campaign against Türkiye in northern Iraq and enables the PKK to survive.
On the other hand, through the military and political hegemony it has established in the north of Syria, thanks to U.S. support, the YPG threatens the local demographic structure and creates a legitimate ground for potential local uprisings. The YPG also regularly carries out terrorist attacks against Türkiye and the Syrian National Army in the safe zones in the Syrian north, targeting civilians and preventing the sustainable and safe return of refugees. Therefore, for Ankara, the source of the problem in Syria is not merely the YPG. The source of the problem is the U.S.’ strategic miscalculation in Syria.
This vital problem limits the potential for cooperation between Türkiye and the U.S. and increases the likelihood of a potential crisis between the two countries.
Against this background, the resolution of the Syria-related problems depends on a change of strategy by one of the two countries. Ankara is likely to maintain its strategy toward the YPG threat in Syria in the near future and seeks to weaken the terrorist group. The recent National Security Council (NSC) statement that “the actions aimed at defending terrorists and shaking the law of alliance from its foundations are carefully noted, and it is emphasized that no effort can change the fate of terrorist organizations targeting our country” puts a more serious emphasis on the ongoing disagreement with the U.S. and underlines how Türkiye perceives Syria as a primary security interest.
Withdrawal and change
On the other hand, the Washington administration is preparing a change of strategy in Syria, including withdrawing its troops and drawing a road map that will focus the U.S. on the Iranian problem. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns said: “The key to Israel’s – and the region’s – security is dealing with Iran. The Iranian regime has been emboldened by the crisis and seems ready to fight to its last regional proxy, all while expanding its nuclear program and enabling Russian aggression.” It seems that the U.S. is preparing a military response against the Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq to regain its military deterrence, which will eventually reshape the very nature of the regional military escalation.
However, the U.S. withdrawal from Syria is not enough to end the Turkish-American conflict because it remains unclear what kind of Syria will be designed after the withdrawal, and Washington seems ready to use the sanction card against the possibility of a comprehensive Turkish military operation against the YPG. Therefore, the possibility of a post-American Syria scenario does not fully solve Türkiye’s security problems. This uncertainty may force Türkiye to accelerate negotiations with the Syrian regime and reach an agreement on a solution.
Even if Türkiye and the U.S. resolve their differences over Syria (which seems unlikely in the near term), they still have to develop a new relationship model. In this model, even if a strategic consensus between Türkiye and the U.S. does not fully emerge on a regional scale, it may be possible to act jointly to reduce the rising tensions in the Middle East. This would require, first and foremost, a permanent cease-fire to end Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza. At a time when Iran is becoming increasingly radicalized and marginalized, Ankara can work with Arab countries to develop a sustainable solution to the Palestinian issue and minimize the proliferation and remobilization of non-state military groups in the region. More importantly, Ankara can mediate to avoid the possibility of a military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.
Türkiye’s ongoing dialogue with Russia, its critical role in the stability of the South Caucasus, its position in the Eastern Mediterranean and its military presence in Libya could provide an opportunity for joint action with Ankara across a wide region.
It is too early to say that the F-16 sale will open a new chapter in Turkish-American relations, but it can be seen as a new development that prevents further deterioration of relations.
Source: Daily Sabah / Murat Yeşiltaş