Turkey returns to NATO’s fold with F-16 gestures, yet challenges persist.

Turkey NATO Return F-16 Gesture

Turkey, along with Hungary, spent nearly two years blocking Sweden’s accession to NATO. Turkey has procured potent Russian weapons systems, and its outspoken president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, openly criticizes leaders of Western allied countries. Relations between Turkey and the West have been severely strained.

However, the decision to permit Sweden into NATO in late January, which necessitated unanimous approval from all 31 alliance members, seems to have caused a sudden change. Shortly after Ankara’s decision, the U.S. greenlit a $23 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, a deal that had been postponed since 2021. Victoria Nuland of the State Department announced that Turkey would promptly receive modernization kits for its F-16s. She also expressed the U.S.’s willingness to welcome Turkey back into the F-35 program, NATO’s most advanced fighter jet, once the issue of Turkey’s procurement of Russian weapons systems was resolved.

It’s noteworthy that Hungary has yet to endorse Sweden’s NATO bid, remaining the sole obstacle to the Nordic country’s accession.

David Lepeska, a columnist specializing in Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs, observed in a piece for the UAE outlet The National, “No country within the western orbit has taken so many problematic steps only to be welcomed back with open arms.”

Turkey appears to possess a unique position enabling it to push boundaries and challenge its NATO allies. Despite calls from some U.S. lawmakers for stricter accountability, Turkey is welcomed back with open arms after a single change in stance.

Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remarked, “My approval of Turkey’s request to purchase F-16 aircraft has been contingent on Turkish approval of Sweden’s NATO membership. But make no mistake: This was not a decision I came to lightly.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., expressed his approval of Turkey’s ratification but voiced concerns about President Erdogan’s actions, including attacks on Syrian Kurdish allies, aggressive behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean, and support for Azerbaijan’s military actions in Nagorno-Karabakh. He emphasized the importance of closely monitoring Turkey in the coming weeks and months, noting that actions speak louder than words.

Geopolitical analysts emphasize that the significance of a country to its allies and partners on a strategic or economic level directly correlates with the latitude it enjoys in international affairs.

Turkey holds the second-largest military within NATO, following the U.S. The Incirlik air base serves as a pivotal launching pad for Western operations in the Middle East, including fighter jet missions over Syria and Iraq during anti-IS campaigns. Moreover, it hosts approximately 50 American nuclear warheads.

According to Hakan Akbas, a senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group, Turkey has historically been a vital NATO member due to its geostrategic position spanning Europe and Asia, and its control over the Black Sea access. The country’s control over the Bosporus Strait, a critical maritime route for global food and agricultural trade, as well as military logistics, further enhances its strategic importance. Additionally, Turkey has been actively involved in various military operations alongside the U.S., most recently in Afghanistan.

Turkey’s strategic significance to NATO extends beyond its military role. Being a key player in regional security, bordering Russia, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and serving as a transit country for energy pipelines crucial to global markets, provides Ankara with significant leverage in its interactions with other NATO members.

Despite causing unease among some NATO members due to its close ties with Russia, Turkey’s relationship with Moscow allows it to facilitate agreements such as the Black Sea grain deal and prisoner swaps between Ukraine and Russia.

The decision by Washington to expedite the sale of F-16s to Turkey can be interpreted as a gesture of goodwill and recognition of Turkey’s critical role within the alliance. This move aims to strengthen ties with Turkey, especially concerning security matters related to Russia, while balancing broader concerns about regional stability.

Overall, the dynamics between NATO and Turkey highlight the adaptive nature of their relationship, where strategic imperatives often lead to compromises and concessions from all parties involved.

Turkey and its NATO allies, particularly the U.S., continue to face conflicts in several sensitive areas.

The purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system by Ankara poses a significant security risk for NATO’s defense systems, according to Washington. This purchase in 2019 led to Turkey’s exclusion from NATO’s F-35 program, which would have involved its participation in the production and acquisition of advanced stealth jets.

Additionally, Ankara openly criticizes U.S. support for Kurdish militias in Syria, which Turkey views as part of a Kurdish terrorist group threatening its security. Military actions by Turkey against these groups in Syria have occasionally resulted in indirect clashes with U.S. forces in the region.

President Erdogan of Turkey has expressed strong support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip. Turkey provides sanctuary for some Hamas leaders who are designated as terrorists by the U.S. Furthermore, Turkey’s unilateral actions regarding maritime disputes with fellow NATO members Greece and Cyprus have drawn criticism from within the alliance.

According to Akbas, any of these issues could potentially escalate, depending on domestic political or economic developments in Turkey, changes in the regional security landscape, or shifts in U.S. and NATO policies.

The fluid nature of geopolitics in the regions means that while some disputes may temporarily subside or de-escalate, they have the potential to resurface as significant challenges to alliance cohesion and cooperation.