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WASHINGTON — The United States is locked in a complicated dance with Turkey, one of its most troubled allies, involving fighter jets, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Congress and, ultimately, the war in Ukraine.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, in Washington this week to meet US officials, wasted no time in putting forward his nation’s demand for US-made F-16 fighters.

“We will discuss important topics on bilateral defense cooperation, in particular our request for F-16s,” Cavusoglu said ahead of the meeting, which Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken watched with a stony face. “This is not only for [Turkey] but also important for NATO and also for the United States, so we expect an agreement in line with our common strategic interests.”

Administration officials last week issued an “informal notice” to Congress that a $20 billion sale of F-16s to Turkey was in the works. But the idea that approval for such a sale might be forthcoming was not widely shared at the State Department and the White House.

Powerful US lawmakers are blocking new arms sales to Turkey, citing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and its increasingly authoritarian rejection of democracy, its suppression of dissidents and minorities, and its threats to neighbors.

But Turkey could block something the US and most of the West desperately want: an expansion of NATO to include Sweden and Finland.

As a member of NATO, Turkey has veto power to allow new countries to join. The 30-nation alliance must agree to such an expansion unanimously.

Long neutrals, Sweden and Finland began to see NATO protection as a matter of urgency after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago. Both countries are under a Kremlin missile strike, should President Vladimir Putin use his threat to avenge his perceived back-page pro-NATO sentiment.

NATO ally Turkey is in a difficult position: The government in Ankara has insisted that the two Nordic countries stop offering shelter to Kurdish rebels opposed to Erdogan’s government. And Erdogan branded opponents as terrorists who must be caught and punished.

The Biden administration remains “deeply concerned” over abuse of free expression and other human rights in Turkey, officials say, but is ultimately likely to continue with the sale.

“When talking about the F-16, President Biden said that in general, he believes that we should sell F-16 jets to Turkey and also modernize their existing fleet,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.

But, he added, “this is a process that involves Congress, of course, and … I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets, because our partners on the Hill have also been quite vocal about this … there is a strong opinion on the Hill.”

Those voices are led by Senator Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in theory has the power to stop arms deals with foreign nations.

“President Erdogan continues to undermine international law, ignores human rights and democratic norms, and engages in alarming and destabilizing behavior within Turkey and towards its neighboring NATO allies,” Menendez said in a statement over the weekend, after news of the informal notification from sales to Turkey outstanding.

“Until Erdogan stops his threats, improves his human rights record at home – including by letting go of journalists and political opposition – and starts acting like a trusted ally, I will not agree to this sale,” Menendez added.

There are ways Biden could get around the congressional block on arms transfers, through executive action or other steps, but State Department officials seem reluctant to go down that path.

After his meeting in Washington, Cavusoglu spoke to Turkish journalists and acknowledged that the Sweden-Finnish NATO question was overshadowing the talks but said it should not be a condition of the F-16 sale.

“What matters here is whether the government will be firm or not,” Cavusoglu told Turkish state TV broadcaster TRT.

“The government should not throw away an important deal between two allies just because one or a few people got in the way of it,” he added. “Should not submit.”

Turkey is also a troublesome ally for the US due to its hospitality towards Russia, including extensive trade, pursuing an arms deal with Moscow, and alliance with Russian forces in Syria. Turkey’s acquisition of the air defense system from Russia six years ago led to Western sanctions amid fears Moscow could use the access to spy on NATO assets.

But Turkey’s relationship with Russia also plays a role in the potential diplomacy to end Putin’s war in Ukraine. Washington credits Ankara with opening a corridor through the Black Sea to allow Ukraine to export millions of tons of grain to world markets despite Russia’s blockade. At the same time, Erdogan has refused to join the imposition of tough Western sanctions against Moscow for its attack on Ukraine.

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