Blinken tackles Gaza, NATO expansion with Turkey's Erdogan

AFP , Saturday 6 Jan 2024

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discusses the Israeli war on Gaza with Turkey's leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday before flying to Crete to address Greek worries about the looming sale of US fighter jets to Ankara.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, on his fir
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, on his first stop of his tour of the Middle East. AP


Blinken arrived in Istanbul late Friday for the first leg of a trip that includes visits to both Israel and the West Bank.

Blinken's fourth crisis tour since the start of the Israeli war on Gaza three months ago comes with fears mounting that the conflict will engulf swathes of the Middle East.

A senior US administration official said Blinken will press Israel to increase aid to Palestinians and move to a phase of combat that allows the displaced to start returning to their homes.

The official added that much of the discussions with Arab leaders will focus on containing the violence and looking at how the region can be governed once the fighting ends.

Istanbul served as a base for Hamas political leaders until the Al-Aqsa flood operation in Israel.

Turkey later asked the Hamas chiefs to leave after some were captured on video celebrating the attack.

Strident critic

Turkish President Erdogan has since turned into one of the world's harshest critics of the scale of death and destruction happening in Gaza -- and of Washington's support for Israel.

Erdogan has compared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler and accused the United States of sponsoring the "genocide" of Palestinians.

He has also rebuffed US pressure to cut off the suspected flow of funding through Turkey to Hamas and defended the group as legitimately elected "liberators" fighting for their land.

The US State Department on Friday announced $10 million rewards for information about five alleged Hamas foreign operatives -- three of them believed to be based in Turkey -- thought to be helping finance the Iran-backed group.

Turkey this week countered by detaining 34 people suspected of planning attacks against Palestinians and spying for Israel's Mossad intelligence agency.

Last month, US President Joe Biden called the Turkish leader for the first time since the war broke out.

The call helped push along NATO member Turkey's glacial progress in accepting Sweden into the US-led defense organization in the wake of Russia's war on Ukraine.

A parliamentary committee approved Sweden's application in late December.

Some analysts believe Biden's call also secured Blinken's planned meeting with Erdogan. The Turkish leader notably left the capital during Blinken's last visit two months ago.


Blinken will hope to win assurances in talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and Erdogan that a vote by the full chamber will happen soon.

Approval from all NATO states is required for new members to join the defense bloc.

NATO has already doubled the length of its border with Russia when Turkey relented and accepted Sweden's neighbor Finland into the alliance last year.

Erdogan has been able to use Turkey's veto power to impel Sweden into taking a tougher stance with the Kurdish group in Stockholm that Ankara views as "terrorists".

He has also been trying to make Sweden's approval conditional on the US delivering 40 US F-16 fighter jets and nearly 80 modernization kits for Turkey's aging air force.

Biden's administration officially backs the sale but has been unable to overcome resistance in Congress from lawmakers who express alarm about Turkey's position on Sweden and past military standoffs with historic rival Greece.

"We have made clear that we do not believe the sale... should be linked with Sweden's NATO accession, but there are members of Congress who have a different opinion and they have linked the two," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said this week.

Blinken will travel to the Greek island of Crete later Saturday for talks with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Greece has fiercely resisted the US jet sales because of its longstanding territorial disputes with Turkey in the energy-rich eastern Mediterranean region.

Athens is seeking to purchase a batch of more advanced F-35 jets from the United States to counter the perceived Turkish threat.

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