U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has embarked on a week-long diplomatic tour in the Middle East, with the primary goal of easing tensions that got serious during Israel’s conflict with Hamas in October. Blinken initiated his diplomatic efforts with meetings in Istanbul, Turkey on Saturday, 6th January where he engaged with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, a vocal critic of Israel’s military actions in Gaza.
The discussions between Blinken and Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan covered the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Additionally, talks centred around Turkey’s process to ratify Sweden’s membership in NATO, a move that has faced delays but is expected to gain approval soon, according to a senior State Department official.
The U.S. Congress has, however, stalled the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey until it officially consents to Sweden joining NATO. Sweden and Finland sought NATO membership following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, with Sweden poised to become the alliance’s 32nd member after gaining approval from the Turkish parliament last month.
Blinken’s itinerary also includes a visit to Crete, where he is scheduled to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Greece, another NATO member, awaits congressional approval for the sale of F-35 fighter jets from the United States. Greek Foreign Minister George Gerapetritis expressed optimism about positive developments in these discussions.
The Secretary of State’s upcoming travels will take him to various locations, including Arab states, Israel, and the occupied West Bank. The overarching message Blinken aims to convey is that Washington seeks to prevent a regional escalation of the Gaza conflict.
Turkey, with its connections to U.S. adversaries Iran and Hamas, holds a unique position in the diplomatic efforts. Unlike the U.S., Turkey does not designate Hamas as a terrorist group and hosts some of its members. The complexity of Turkey’s relationships in the region adds nuance to Blinken’s mission.
The Gaza conflict, triggered by Hamas militants’ attack on Israel in October, has claimed numerous lives, with Israel’s retaliatory offensive resulting in casualties and spreading tensions to the West Bank, Lebanon, and Red Sea shipping lanes.
Beyond addressing immediate concerns, Blinken also aspires to make progress in discussions about the governance of Gaza post-Hamas. Washington envisions a role for regional countries, including Turkey, in the reconstruction, governance, and potential security of the Gaza Strip once Israel achieves its goal of eradicating Hamas.