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New US Senate foreign relations chair sets sight on Turkish F-16 deal

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The newly appointed chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday expressed his intention to look at Türkiye’s request to buy Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets.

Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat, said numerous factors, not just Sweden’s ascension to NATO, would influence the decision regarding the previous chair’s longstanding objection to the $20 billion deal.

“I need to talk to the administration on a lot of these issues, because it’s beyond just one issue involved, and I need to understand that,” Cardin told reporters a day after he took over leadership of the influential panel.

Cardin said he had discussed Sweden’s NATO accession with Turkish officials at an alliance ambassador’s meeting on Wednesday.

“They claim that will be done in the first part of next month,” he said. “If that is in fact true, then at least we have the NATO issue resolved, but there are other issues in addition to just NATO accession that need to be part of our discussions as we move forward.”

The previous panel chair, Senator Bob Menendez, has been the most staunch foe of improving Türkiye-U.S. relations at the U.S. Senate.

He had blocked the sale for months, citing issues including Ankara not ratifying Sweden’s NATO membership, accusations about human rights and Turkish-Greek tensions.

Senate rules forced Menendez to step down as leader of the committee after being accused in a federal indictment of trading off his Senate position to enrich himself with cash, gold bars and a luxury car.

Prosecutors have said Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, accepted gold bars and hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for using their influence to interfere with law enforcement probes of three New Jersey businessmen and aid the Egyptian government.

They pleaded not guilty in court on Wednesday.

Leaders of the U.S. Senate and House foreign affairs panels review every major foreign arms sale. They regularly ask questions or raise concerns over human rights or diplomatic issues that can delay or stop such deals.

NATO member Türkiye requested in October 2021 to buy 40 new F-16 fighters and nearly 80 modernization kits to upgrade its existing fleet.

President Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly expressed its support for the sale.

Ankara has held out on the ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership for months, due to Stockholm doing too little against terrorists, mainly the PKK, which is also considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU.

Stockholm applied for NATO membership alongside Finland following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. Finnish membership was sealed in April, while only Türkiye and Hungary are yet to ratify Sweden’s application.

Türkiye has said Ankara and Budapest are working in close coordination on the issue.

The top Republican on the Senate panel, Senator Jim Risch, has put a hold on arms sales to Hungary over the issue.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in July he would forward the ratification to the Turkish Parliament after it returns from summer recess on Oct. 1.

Ankara has repeatedly warned that Türkiye’s F-16 bid should not be linked to Sweden’s application for NATO membership.

Asked this week on whether the two matters were being tied, Erdoğan said: “They are already making Sweden dependent on the F-16 … Our Parliament follows every development regarding this issue in minute detail.”

After Menendez’s indictment was unsealed, Erdoğan said Türkiye should turn the senator’s legal troubles into an opportunity to purchase the fighter jets.

“One of our most important problems regarding the F-16s were the activities of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez against our country,” he told reporters.

“Menendez being out of the picture is an advantage,” he said but added that the F-16 issue is not an issue that depended only on the Democratic senator.

Menendez on Thursday told his Democratic Senate colleagues that he will remain on the job despite growing calls for his resignation.

More than half of Democratic senators in the 51-member caucus – Democrats and three independents who typically vote with them – have said Menendez should step down.

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