Senators warily allow F-16 sale to Turkey as part of NATO expansion agreement. ‘A deal’s a deal’

WASHINGTON — US senators on Thursday refused to block the sale of F-16s to Turkey, despite their deep disdain for Turkey’s behavior as an ally. They kept an unofficial agreement that the Turks would get the fighter jets if they stopped blocking Sweden’s accession to NATO.

“A deal is a deal,” said Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Call it quid pro quo,” Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who introduced the resolution to try to block the sale, told fellow senators. “That sounds better than extortion.”

The Senate voted 13 to 79 to reject Paul’s proposal.

Along with Democratic committee chairman Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, Risch took the floor in the Senate before the vote to acknowledge some of the many US objections to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government: its record on of human rights, its attacks on U.S. allies in Syria, its support for Azerbaijani offensives on an ethnic Armenian enclave, and Turkey’s ties with Russia over military deals and other matters.

Nevertheless, senior Republican and Democratic foreign policy leaders argued that Sweden’s addition to NATO was too important to the overall strategic interests of the Western military alliance and for the U.S. to allow fellow NATO member Turkey would spoil this one.

Sweden and Finland sought to join NATO in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The United States and the majority of other NATO allies supported the accession, saying the two’s militaries, industries and locations countries near or bordering Russia would strengthen the alliance. Finland joined NATO last year after Erdogan also withdrew initial objections to that country.

Erdogan’s objections to Sweden include that it was hosting Turkish critics in exile. But Erdogan also publicly linked his objections to hopes of overcoming US reluctance to sell him new models of the advanced fighter jet.

“I’m not here to defend Turkey or the other things they do,” Risch said. “What I am here to do is defend the interests of NATO.”

Paul argued before the vote that withholding the advanced fighter jets was the best leverage the US had to influence Turkey’s behavior as an ally.

“What will Turkey do next time they want something?” he asked.

The State Department notified Congress in January of its approval of a $23 billion sale of F-16s to Turkey, along with an accompanying $8.6 billion sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets dollar to Greece.

The State Department’s agreement came just hours after Turkey deposited its “instrument of ratification” for Sweden’s accession to NATO with Washington, the repository for alliance documents, and after several key members of Congress withdrew their objections .