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Blinken to talk aid, Nordic NATO bid in visit to quake-hit Turkey

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© Reuters. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives for a meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, February. 18, 2023. Petr David Josek/Pool via REUTERS

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By Humeyra Pamuk

MUNICH (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will arrive on Sunday in Turkey for an official visit and discuss how Washington can further assist Ankara as it grapples with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people.

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey’s southeast and neighboring Syria on Feb. 6, killing more than 45,000 people and leaving over a million people homeless along with an economic cost expected to run into billions of dollars.

Also topping the agenda will be the stalled NATO bids of Sweden and Finland, which Turkey has so far refused to ratify, saying Stockholm in particular has harbored what it calls members of terrorist groups. Ankara has recently indicated it would approve only Finland.

The top U.S. diplomat will land at Incirlik Air Base in the southern province of Adana, from where he will take a helicopter tour of the quake-struck area. He will then hold bilateral talks on Monday with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Blinken is also expected to meet with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, sources familiar with the planning said.

Since the earthquake, the United States has sent a search and rescue team to Turkey, medical supplies, concrete-breaking machinery, and additional funding of $85 million in humanitarian aid that also covers Syria.

Blinken’s first visit to Turkey as secretary of state has been in the works for some time but comes two years after he took office, in stark contrast with some of his predecessors including Hillary Clinton and Rex Tillerson, who made the visit within the first three months of their terms.

The delay, analysts say, shows the strained nature of the relationship, which has soured particularly since 2019 when Ankara acquired Russian missile defense systems. While the United States has praised Turkey for some of its actions during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it remains worried over its close relationship with Moscow, experts say.

NATO DEADLOCK

Sweden and Finland applied last year to join the trans-Atlantic defense pact after Russia invaded Ukraine, but faced unexpected objections from Turkey and have since sought to win its support.

Ankara wants Helsinki and Stockholm in particular to take a tougher line against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terror group by Turkey and the European Union, and another group it blames for a 2016 coup attempt.

In January, Erdogan said he was open to ratifying only Helsinki’s application.

Linked to the membership bids is Turkey’s desire to buy U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, a sale the U.S. Congress has objected to, unless at least Ankara gives the greenlight for the Nordic accession process.

On Saturday, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen echoed that sentiment and said allowing Finland to join the alliance alone would not be enough.

“There will be no transfer of F-16s if Erdogan continues to deny admission to Finland and Sweden … He doesn’t get to have Finland in and the F-16s approved and I think that’s a broad sentiment,” Van Hollen said in an interview.

The Biden administration has repeatedly said it supports the sale and while it has refrained from linking the two issues, it has acknowledged that the approval for the Nordic countries would have a positive impact among members of Congress.

Turkey has expressed its frustration that the issues are seen increasingly linked. Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s chief foreign policy advisor, said last month he hoped the F-16 deal would not become “hostage” to the NATO memberships of Sweden and Finland.

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