ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s chances of acquiring F-16 fighter jets from the U.S. have been boosted by Sen. Bob Menendez stepping down as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in remarks published Tuesday.
Menendez, the senior Democratic senator for New Jersey, has been a vocal opponent of Turkey receiving aircraft to update its fighter fleet. He stood down from the influential role last week following federal charges that he took cash and gold in illegal exchange for helping the Egyptian government and New Jersey business associates.
“One of our most important problems regarding the F-16s were the activities of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez against our country,” Erdogan told journalists on a flight back from Azerbaijan on Monday. His comments were widely reported across Turkish media.
“Menendez’s exit gives us an advantage but the F-16 issue is not an issue that depends only on Menendez,” Erdogan added.
Ankara has been seeking to buy 40 new F-16s, as well as kits to upgrade its existing fleet. The request was backed by the White House but ran into opposition in Congress, where Menendez raised concerns about Turkey's human rights records as well as blaming Ankara for fractious relations with neighboring Greece.
Referring to talks between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan in recent days, Erdogan said: “It would be beneficial to turn this situation into an opportunity and meet with (Blinken) again.
“In this way, we may have the opportunity to accelerate the process regarding the F-16s. Not only on the F-16s, but on all other issues, Menendez and those with his mindset are carrying out obstructive activities against us.”
Erdogan also openly linked Turkey's F-16 bid to Sweden’s application for NATO membership, which is expected to be debated by the Turkish parliament after it returns from summer recess on Oct. 1.
He said Blinken and Fidan had discussed Sweden’s NATO bid, adding: “I hope that if they stay true to their promise, our parliament will also stay true to its promise.”
Questioned on whether the bid was tied to Turkey receiving the F-16s, Erdogan said: “They are already making Sweden dependent on the F-16 … Our parliament follows every development regarding this issue in minute detail.”
Stockholm applied for NATO membership alongside Finland following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. Only Turkey and Hungary are yet to ratify its application. Neither Washington nor Ankara have openly admitted a link between Sweden’s bid to the F-16 deal but it is widely acknowledged unofficially.
Erdogan was returning from a one-day trip to Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani enclave separated from the rest of the country by a 33-kilometer (21-mile) stretch of Armenian territory.
Following Azerbaijan’s rout of Armenian forces in a 24-hour blitz in Nagorno-Karabakh last week, Baku has raised hopes of opening a land bridge between Nakhchivan and the rest of Azerbaijan, known as the Zangezur Corridor.
Erdogan said Turkey and Azerbaijan would “do our best to open this corridor as soon as possible.” He added that if Armenia would not agree, an alternative route could go through Iran, a move that Erdogan said Tehran regards “positively.”
In a wide-ranging briefing, Erdogan also raised the prospect of a visit to Turkey by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October or November.
The two leaders met for the first time in New York last week while attending the U.N. General Assembly. Israel is one of a number of regional powers that Ankara has been patching up relations with in recent years, following more than a decade of hostility.
The Turkish president also addressed the issue of Cyprus, divided between ethnic Turkish and Greek communities for 49 years.
He reiterated his support for a two-state solution, with international recognition for the Turkish administration in the island’s north. Turkey is the only country to recognize the breakaway entity. The international community broadly supports the unification of the island under a federal system.
“We will raise our voices even more for Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to be recognized by other countries,” Erdogan said.