WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel Sunday to Turkey to discuss support after a massive earthquake, his first trip to the NATO ally which has had turbulent relations with Washington.
Blinken will visit Incirlik air base, through which the United States has shipped aid, and then hold talks in the capital Ankara on “continued US support,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday.
The top US diplomat will also take part in the Munich Security Conference, where the Ukraine war and tensions with China will take centre stage, and will visit Turkey’s historic rival Greece, a fellow NATO ally.
The United States has flown in some 200 rescuers and contributed an initial $85 million in relief for Turkey, deploying Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters to bring supplies to worst-hit areas.
The visit, which was being planned before the February 6 earthquake that killed nearly 40,000 people in the country and neighbouring Syria, will be the first by Blinken to Turkey after more than two years in office.
President Joe Biden was elected after promising to take a greater distance from his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Biden has previously branded an autocrat.
But the Biden administration has since viewed Turkey as helpful for a mediatory role between Russia and Ukraine, including in a deal to ship grain through the Black Sea to alleviate world shortages.
The Biden administration has voiced support for Turkey’s request to buy F-16 fighter jets but the sale is being blocked in Congress due to concerns over Turkey’s human rights record and threats to Greece.
The United States has been seeking ways to encourage Erdogan to lift his objections to NATO membership by Sweden and Finland, which have shed earlier neutrality since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Turkey has been the key holdout, with Erdogan pressing Sweden to crack down on Kurdish militants seen by Ankara as terrorists.
After signs of progress, Erdogan renewed objections to Sweden after a protest outside Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm at which a far-right activist torched Islam’s holy book the Koran.
The United States in recent years has also been angered by Turkey’s purchase of an advanced air defence system from Moscow, saying it could help NATO’s primary adversary hone in on Western fighter jets.
Blinken is expected to discuss tensions with Turkey when he travels on Monday to Athens, although the temperature has cooled since the earthquake as Greece assists its neighbour.
Blinken will start his trip Thursday in Frankfurt and then head to the Munich Security Conference, the annual gathering of leaders that is taking place a week before the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In Munich, Blinken will join Vice President Kamala Harris, who is part of a slew of US officials visiting Europe around the anniversary, with Biden due in Poland next week.
Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi is also expected in Munich, offering a potential chance for a meeting with Blinken, although US officials said nothing was decided.
Blinken had been due to travel earlier this month to Beijing in the first trip by a top US diplomat in more than four years, seeking to prevent tensions between the world’s two largest economies from spiralling out of control.
But he abruptly cancelled the trip after the United States said that a Chinese surveillance balloon, later shot down, was spotted over the US mainland.