Blinken’s Turkey visit: a new beginning?
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Turkey for the first time in the two years since he has held the position. The visit took place soon after the 7.7 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes that caused severe destruction in Turkey’s southeast. Blinken met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara. Blinken also visited the earthquake region.
The diplomatic relationship between Turkey and the US had been continuing in a negative manner for quite some time. Despite its position as a NATO member, Turkey continues to foster a warm relationship with Russia. The Turkey—US relationship is further strained by Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian regime and its distanced stance towards Western countries.
On the other hand, the US’s support of the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria against ISIS angers Turkey. That Turkey was removed from the F-35 program when it purchased the S-400 air defense system from Russia and that the F-16 fighter jets it had requested from the US have not been approved is another matter complicating the diplomatic relationship. Turkey’s refusal to approve Sweden and Finland’s NATO bids has also led to the cooling of ties between the US and Turkey.
Prominent topics during Blinken’s visit
When he visited Ankara on February 20, Blinken met with President Erdogan and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu. Though there were many items on the agenda between the two countries, most were overlooked due to the immediacy of the earthquake. The US offered 80 million dollars fundraised by the private sector in addition to the 85 million dollars in humanitarian aid and the search and rescue teams it had dispatched to the region. During the visit, Blinken also announced 100 million dollars in further aid to Turkey.
Blinken also visited the Incirlik Air Base near Adana, which took on an important role in the coordination of aid and which was impacted by the earthquake. Then, Blinken observed the destruction over the city of Hatay in a helicopter with Minister Cavusoglu. Blinken’s visit was perceived to be low-profile in comparison to then-President Bill Clinton’s visit following the 1999 earthquake during which he posed for a photograph with a baby, ingrained in Turkish public’s memory.
In Syria, the US provides technical support to the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey, which claims that the YPG are a branch of the PKK in Syria, is vehemently opposed to this relationship. During the press conference, Blinken said on the topic, “…we very much recognize Türkiye’s legitimate security concerns about its southern border – just, as I believe, Türkiye recognizes our legitimate and, indeed, shared security concerns about Daesh and the possibility of its re-emergence. We will continue to work closely together to address both of those concerns.”
Cavusoglu said, “There are two threats to NATO today. The first is Russia, the second is terrorism. Therefore, as NATO members, it is not right for us to be unable to fight ourselves and to instead align ourselves with or to provide support to terrorist groups such as the PKK/YPG, which are our enemies, to fight against ISIS.”
F-16 jets and the F-35 program
Turkey is waiting for the US Congress to provide the relevant legal permissions for its purchase of F-16 fighter jets. Moreover, it is requesting a refund of the amount spent on the F-35 jets that were purchased but not delivered. On that matter, Secretary Blinken said, "With regard to the F-16s, the Biden administration strongly supports the package to both upgrade the existing F-16s and to provide new ones to Türkiye, because as a NATO Ally and partner, it is in our national interest and the security interest of the Alliance that Türkiye continue to be able to operate at the higher standards of NATO to make sure that we have full interoperability.”
Cavusoglu, on the other hand, said, “These two independent issues, especially pertaining to two states becoming full members to NATO to be the precondition of the purchase of F-16s – these are not related issues. They are different negotiations. For both sides, there is an MOU that has been signed – a trilateral MOU – so it will not be correct to put this as a precondition, or, of course, it will not be possible for us to purchase F-16 with certain conditions. Our hands should not be tied, we should have a common stance as the administration of Türkiye and the administration of U.S.”
Noting that the CAATSA sanctions imposed on Turkey and its removal from the F-35 program was a one-sided decision, Cavusoglu requested that the 1.4-billion-dollar purchase be refunded.
Turkey’s close ties to Russia and the US reaction to this was another matter of interest. Secretary Blinken praised Turkey’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and announced that the US held in high esteem Turkey’s role as a mediator in the Russia—Ukraine grain deal.
Cavusoglu said, “Turkey has exhibited a very clear and principled approach. On one hand, we are condemning the war, and as my counterpart has indicated, we are strongly supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We are also condemning and not recognizing the results of the illegal referendum and the annexation of territory. Also, in international platforms we take common and joint decisions”
Cavusoglu acknowledged that the trade volume between Turkey and Russia had increased by 60 percent but explained that a majority of this increase was due to the increasing price of energy.
Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership
One of the most important issues raised was that Turkey has yet to approve Sweden and Finland’s bids for NATO membership. Turkey, which claims that Sweden in particular harbors PKK sympathizers, had criticized Sweden in the past weeks for the Quran-burning incident.
Cavusoglu explained that Sweden was not doing enough in the fight against terrorism.
Secretary Blinken did not back down from his position on this issue and emphasized that Turkey needed to accept these countries. Blinken said, “Finland and Sweden have already taken concrete steps to fulfill the commitments that they made under the trilateral memorandum of agreement that they signed with Türkiye on the margins of the NATO Summit in Madrid. We welcome and appreciate those steps. I think they’re quite significant.”