State Dept. Tells Congress It Has Approved Sale of F-16 Jets to Turkey

The State Department notified Congress on Friday that it had approved a $23 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets and related equipment to Turkey after the country’s leader signed documents to allow Sweden’s long-delayed entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, department officials and the Pentagon said.

Although Congress could move to formally block the sale, four senior lawmakers told the State Department on Friday evening that they would not object, after their aides reviewed the documents signed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, U.S. officials said.

Congressional officials had demanded to see the documents before signaling their approval of the sale, so the State Department asked Turkey to fly the documents to New York on Friday. The department had someone pick up the documents in New York and bring them to Washington by Friday evening to show the lawmakers.

The department’s subsequent formal notification to Congress means the sale will almost certainly occur, satisfying Mr. Erdogan’s main condition for supporting Sweden’s accession to NATO and potentially helping bring to a close an episode that has strained relations between the United States and Turkey.

Turkey was, along with Hungary, one of two NATO members withholding approval of Sweden’s entry into the alliance. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken had undertaken intense diplomacy since last year, including meeting with Mr. Erdogan in Istanbul this month, to try to change the Turkish leader’s mind.

Mr. Blinken discussed the issue with Mr. Erdogan in a visit to Turkey in February 2023, and said three times that Turkey would not get the F-16s if it refused to approve Sweden’s accession, a U.S. official said.

The drawn-out process with Turkey has also delayed the sale of F-35 jets to Greece, which became linked to the F-16s in diplomatic talks because Turkey and Greece are longtime rivals, despite both being members of NATO. The State Department also formally told Congress on Friday night it was going ahead with that sale.

Both Sweden and Finland asked to join NATO after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and almost all of the alliance’s members quickly agreed. Finland joined the alliance in April, but Sweden’s application languished. While Hungary did not raise specific objections, Turkish officials blamed Sweden for harboring Kurds who Turkey officials said were terrorists.

The Turkish Parliament voted on Tuesday to allow Sweden to join NATO, and Mr. Erdogan signed that measure into law on Thursday.

In exchange, the White House made a fresh endorsement of the F-16 sale in a letter sent on Wednesday to the top Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which have oversight of arms transfers by the State Department to other nations.

The White House urged the four lawmakers to give their approval, despite their longstanding reservations about some of Turkey’s foreign policies and military actions, including its growing airstrikes in northeastern Syria against Kurdish fighters who are partners of the U.S. military in its campaign against the Islamic State.

On Friday night, Representative Gregory W. Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the House committee, said Mr. Erdogan’s signing of the protocols for Sweden’s accession was “welcome, if overdue, news for the alliance and the broad bilateral relationship.”

The State Department gave the two congressional committees informal notification of the F-16 sale more than a year ago, starting the review process by lawmakers.

Besides asking the department to address concerns over Turkish strikes on the Kurds, lawmakers had also wanted to see assurances from Turkey that it would de-escalate any tensions with the Greek military in the Aegean Sea.

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised Turkey’s approval in a statement on Friday evening but expressed concern about some of the country’s policies.

“While Turkey plays a critical role in the region as a NATO ally, there is an urgent need for improvement on its human rights record, including the unjust imprisonment of journalists and civil society leaders, better cooperation on holding Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine and on lowering the temperature in its rhetoric about the Middle East,” Mr. Cardin said.

He also criticized Hungary’s “intransigence” on Sweden. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary promised on Wednesday to get his legislature to approve Sweden’s accession, but gave no timeline for a vote. Mr. Cardin said Mr. Orban had “shown himself to be the least reliable member of NATO.”

So far, unlike Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Orban has not asked for a specific quid pro quo, the U.S. official said. But the Biden administration is watching for signs it might need to engage in intense diplomacy with Mr. Orban, too.