ANKARA: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday that Washington was working "very aggressively" to dramatically expand the amount of aid reaching trapped civilians in Gaza.
The top US diplomat held 2.5 hours of one-on-one talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan focused on soothing the anger at both Israel and the West of one of Washington’s most strategic but difficult allies.
NATO member Turkey has been an increasingly vocal critic of the way Israel has been pursuing its month-long offensive against Hamas militants who staged an October 7 attack into Israel — the deadliest in the country’s history.
Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of protesters who marched on an air base housing US forces in southeastern Turkey hours before Blinken’s arrival Sunday.
Hundreds more rallied outside the Turkish foreign ministry during his visit.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself was travelling across Turkey’s remote northeast on Monday in an apparent snub of Washington’s top diplomat.
Blinken told reporters after the meeting that Washington was aware of “the deep concern” in Turkey “for the terrible toll” in Gaza.
“We are working, as I said, very aggressively on getting more humanitarian assistance into Gaza and we have very concrete ways of doing that,” Blinken said before boarding a plane for Japan.
“I think we will see in the days ahead that the assistance can expand in significant ways,” he added without providing details.
A Turkish diplomatic source said Fidan pressed Blinken for “an immediate ceasefire in Gaza”.
“Fidan also pointed out to his US counterpart Blinken that bombing civilian targets and destroying infrastructure in Gaza is unacceptable,” the Turkish source said.
– Tough talks –
Blinken’s talks with Fidan would have been packed with problems even before Israel launched a relentless bombing and expanding ground campaign aimed at eradicating Hamas.
The Hamas-run health ministry said nearly 10,000 people — mostly civilians — had been killed in more than four weeks of war in Gaza.
The operation started after the militants killed more than 1,400 people — also mostly civilians — and took over 240 hostages.
The war threatens to have broad repercussions on Washington’s relations with Turkey.
Ankara has a muscular foreign policy and stakes in conflicts across the Middle East that occasionally fail to align with those of Washington or other NATO allies.
Washington is currently anxious to see Turkey’s parliament finally ratify Sweden’s stalled drive to join the US-led NATO defence organisation.
The United States has also been tightening sanctions against Turkish individuals and companies that are deemed to be helping Russia evade sanctions and import goods for use in its war on Ukraine.
And Ankara is upset that the US Congress is holding up the approval of a deal backed by President Joe Biden to modernise Turkey’s air force with dozens of US F-16 fighter jets.
Turkey also has longstanding reservations about US support for Kurdish forces in Syria who spearheaded the fight against Islamic State group jihadists but are viewed by Ankara as an offshoot of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Ankara has stepped up air strikes against armed Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq in reprisal for an October attack on the Turkish capital claimed by the PKK in which two assailants died.
Blinken called his talks in Ankara “very good, lengthy and productive”.
But he provided few details about the outstanding dispute and highlighted Turkey’s “commitment” to accept Sweden into NATO.
Blinken faced a chorus of Arab calls to support an immediate ceasefire in Gaza during a whirlwind tour of the Middle East that saw him visit both Iraq and the West Bank on Sunday.
Israel says it could accept a humanitarian pause to allow in additional shipments of aid once Hamas frees the hostages.
Blinken said on Monday only that “pause could help” secure more aid deliveries to Gaza.