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US doing everything to ‘strengthen’ relationship with Türkiye: Defense chief

The US intends to maintain the “long-standing strong relationship with” Türkiye, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday. 

“We intend to do everything possible to keep it that way,” Austin told reporters in response to a question about Ankara’s request to purchase F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits for its existing fleet.

Austin declined to comment on any potential arms sales ahead of official congressional notification but emphasized that “Turkey remains a very valuable partner, and we’ll make sure that we’re doing everything we can to continue to strengthen our relationship.”

Türkiye, a fellow long-standing NATO member, requested in October 2021 to purchase 40 F-16 fighter jets, as well as 80 modernization kits for its existing planes.

The Biden administration informally notified Congress of its approval of the sale in January but key lawmakers on Capitol Hill have vowed to nix the deal over several demands, including making the purchase contingent on Ankara’s approval of Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bids.

Asked about the potential sale, Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said linking the matter with the sales is “completely illogical, unacceptable and counterproductive.”

“It sends a very wrong message, and it doesn’t help the process,” he added Monday during a business forum in Washington.

Speaking alongside Austin at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley was asked about his recent visit to northeastern Syria, which strained ties between Washington and Ankara and prompted Türkiye to summon the US’ envoy to discuss the general’s visit.

“My visit was nothing more than a routine troop visit to determine the task, purpose, mission, to go out and check on that, see how we’re doing and assess things like force protection,” he said. “We’ve got almost 1000 troops in Syria and they are at risk. They are attacked from time to time with various types of munitions by various actors that are in the area of Syria.”

“We’ve been there for years. And the common interest is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. The Caliphate was destroyed. But there’s still remnants of that organization over there,” he said.

“So, it’s in our interest and it’s in Turkey’s interest, and it’s for sure, it’s something that I needed to do and it’s perfectly appropriate for the chairman to go check on how the forces are doing, especially when they’re in harm’s way,” he added.

Türkiye has long voiced opposition to US cooperation with the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, a designated terror organization in the US, Türkiye and the EU. The YPG is the principal group behind the SDF, the US’ chief partner in northeast Syria.

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