US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met senior Turkish officials in Istanbul, kicking off a week-long trip across the Middle East aimed at calming tensions that have spiked since Israel’s war on Gaza began in October.
In his meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Blinken “emphasised the need to prevent the conflict from spreading, secure the release of hostages, expand humanitarian assistance and reduce civilian casualties,” US Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Saturday.
Blinken also stressed the need to work towards broader, lasting regional peace that ensures Israel’s security and advances the establishment of a Palestinian state, Miller added.
Erdogan, a fierce critic of Israel’s military actions in Gaza, had previously skipped a meeting with Blinken, when the US diplomat visited Ankara in November, over Washington’s staunch backing of Israel’s assault on Gaza.
On Saturday, Blinken also met Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and discussions focused on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Turkey’s foreign ministry said.
In his conversation with Blinken, Fidan pointed to Israel’s escalating aggression, saying it poses a threat to the entire region. He also underlined the necessity of an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, allowing the permanent delivery of aid, and stressed the need to return to two-state solution negotiations as soon as possible, the ministry added.
Minister of Foreign Affairs @HakanFidan met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at Vahdettin Mansion in Istanbul.
At the meeting, Ministers discussed the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Sweden’s NATO accession process, bilateral & regional issues. 🇹🇷🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/UvHbV5YoDs
— Turkish MFA (@MFATurkiye) January 6, 2024
The US’s strained relationship with Turkey precedes the current war, with the two nations also feuding over foreign policy issues ranging from NATO to Iraq.
Ankara is frustrated by the delay in approval from the US Congress for a $20bn deal for 40 F-16 fighter jets. Washington is waiting for Turkey to ratify Sweden’s bid to join NATO.
On Saturday, Blinken and Fidan addressed Ankara’s process to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership, according to a Turkish foreign ministry statement.
US officials are confident Ankara will soon approve Sweden’s accession after it won the Turkish parliament’s backing last month, a senior State Department official travelling with Blinken told the Reuters news agency.
As part of Blinken’s whistlestop tour of several countries, he then travelled to the island of Crete on Saturday to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Fellow NATO member Greece is awaiting the US Congress’s approval of a sale of F-35 fighter jets.
Post Greece, Blinken’s tour in the coming days will include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and the occupied West Bank, where he will deliver a message that Washington does not want a regional escalation of the Gaza conflict. Blinken also hopes to make progress in talks about how Gaza could be governed if and when Israel achieves its aim of eradicating Hamas.
Blinken’s trip has “three main messages”, said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of Gulf studies at Qatar University: deescalation of the conflict; the humanitarian crisis; and what happens the day after the war ends.
“Washington doesn’t seem to be happy over the statements coming from the government of Netanyahu talking about the displacement of the people. They seem to want to put pressure on Netanyahu, especially with London, Paris and Germany saying the status quo of Gaza should not be changed,” Zweiri told Al Jazeera.
Blinken has said Washington wants regional countries, including Turkey, to play a role in reconstruction, governance and potentially security in the Gaza Strip, which has been run by Hamas since 2007.
At least 22,722 people have been killed and 58,166 wounded in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7. The revised death toll from the October attack on Israel stands at 1,139 people.