ANKARA — When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken first planned a trip to Turkey, it promised to be a difficult, even contentious diplomatic visit.
Washington and Ankara have been at odds on several important issues, including Turkey’s ties to Russia, its refusal to allow Sweden and Finland to join NATO and the authoritarian drift of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has been so exasperating in so many ways in recent years that Mr. Blinken, in his confirmation hearing, referred to Ankara as a “so-called ally,” and in two years had not visited.
But less than two weeks before Mr. Blinken was due to arrive, a devastating earthquake in Turkey left more than 40,000 people dead. The disaster pushed other concerns to the background temporarily, offering the Biden administration a chance to reinforce an old alliance and earn some trust as they try to resolve their disputes.
The United States mobilized a major relief effort, sending elite search-and-rescue teams, heavy equipment, $85 million in humanitarian aid and at least another $80 million in private donations. When Mr. Blinken landed at Incirlik Air Base near the Turkish city of Adana on Sunday, he toured nearby earthquake damage by helicopter and U.S. military relief efforts at the base before announcing another $100 million in American aid.
At a news conference in Ankara on Monday alongside Turkey’s foreign minister, MevlutCavusoglu, Mr. Blinken spoke like an unconditionally loving friend.
“The United States is here to support you in your time of need, and we will be by your side for as long as it takes to recover and rebuild,” he said. Hours later, a powerful, 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck near the already devastated city of Antakya in southern Turkey, causing more buildings to collapse.
Mr. Blinken’s message was reciprocated. Asked whether the American assistance would make solving other problems easier, Mr. Cavusoglu replied that “of course the solidarity that has been extended during difficult times will have a positive effect on relations.”
That is good news for the Biden administration. While U.S. officials find Mr. Erdogan to be routinely frustrating, they can’t afford to turn their backs on a country whose location and NATO membership give it enormous strategic importance. Washington also values Turkey’s influence in the Muslim world.
And, most recently, Mr. Erdogan has offered himself as a potential peace mediator between Russia and Ukraine, and he brokered a vital deal between them to allow for the shipment of desperately needed Ukrainian food products to the outside world.
Deadly Quake in Turkey and Syria
A 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 6, with its epicenter in Gaziantep, Turkey, has become one of the deadliest natural disasters of the century.
- Near the Epicenter: Amid scenes of utter devastation in the ancient Turkish city of Antakya, thousands are trying to make sense of an earthquake that left them with no home and no future.
- A Flawed Design: Residents of a new upscale tower in Turkey were told it was earthquake resistant, but the building collapsed anyway. A close look offers clues as to why.
- Miraculous Rescues: Two brothers who rationed protein powder while trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building for about 200 hours were among those rescued in Turkey a week after the quake.
- In Erzin: The small Turkish city survived the quake with no casualties and little damage. The mayor credited his enforcement of building standards, but scientists say it is more likely about geology.
Yet a bare-bones State Department readout of Mr. Blinken’s meeting on Monday with the Turkish leader offered few hints about whether, despite the good will the United States is earning at a moment of national tragedy, the men made any real progress toward resolving the many underlying disputes between their countries.
Most pressing is the question of NATO expansion to include Finland and Sweden, two countries that dropped their longstanding policy of nonalignment in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The expansion plan was unveiled with much fanfare nine months ago and celebrated by President Biden as a major setback for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
But adding new nations to NATO requires the unanimous approval of its 30 member states, and so far, Mr. Erdogan has refused. He surprised Western leaders with bitter complaints that Sweden and Finland were too accommodating of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., a Kurdish nationalist group that has long staged attacks inside Turkey and that both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organization.
The Turkish leader is still holding out after months of negotiations, despite promises by the Swedes and Finns to take a harder line on P.K.K. activists and supporters operating within their borders. Turkey has demanded that they be extradited to face prosecution. (Turkey now says its issues with Finland are largely resolved but that Sweden has much more to do.)
Some U.S. officials believe Mr. Erdogan, may be posturing ahead of national elections scheduled for May. After 20 years in power, he has declined in popularity and is seeking another term as president. But no one is sure what, exactly, is on Mr. Erdogan’s mind.
In Congress, lawmakers have begun signaling to Mr. Erdogan that he may pay a steep price for his obstruction: 27 senators of both parties signed a letter in early February vowing to block the Biden administration from selling F-16 fighter jets to Turkey unless Mr. Erdogan signs off on Swedish and Finnish membership.
On Monday, Mr. Blinken noted that Biden administration supports the fighter jet sale, saying it is important to the U.S. that its NATO allies have modern, integrated equipment. Although he said that the Biden administration does not link the proposed sale to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, he added that he had been discussing the matter with Congress and expressed confidence that the new applicants would eventually be admitted.
But standing beside him, Mr. Cavusoglu offered no hint that Turkey was prepared to yield, and complained that pro-P.K.K. “activities are continuing” in Stockholm.
Mr. Cavusoglu also suggested that the Biden administration can strong-arm Congress to secure the F-16 sale if it chooses. “If the U.S. administration has a firm stance and if we work together, we believe that we can overcome this resistance,” he said.
Mr. Cavusoglu did acknowledge, in response to a question, that U.S. officials had expressed concern that trade between Russia and his country — which has not signed on to the Western sanctions against Moscow — had boomed since the start of the war in Ukraine, helping to fill Russia’s war coffers.
But he sought to downplay the issue, saying that figures showing a surge in commerce between Turkey and Russia largely reflected higher energy prices. He said claims that Turkey has been a conduit for military-capable technology denied to Russia by sanctions were “not correct,” and that Turkey would take action against any demonstrated violations.
Mr. Blinken made no comment about other friction points. One is Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian brand of politics, which has featured a harsh clampdown on Turkey’s civil society, news media and political opposition, and led Turkey to be excluded from a democracy summit Mr. Biden hosted at the White House last year.
Nor did Mr. Blinken mention concerns in Washington that the Turkish leader might use the earthquake as a pretext to suspend his country’s spring elections for self-interested reasons.
The secretary seemed more determined on this trip in spotlighting America’s post-earthquake response. After touring quake damage with Mr. Cavusoglu in a Turkish military helicopter, Mr. Blinken joined a line of NATO soldiers loading boxes of electric and gas heaters onto a flatbed truck for distribution. He then personally thanked the two 80-person American search-and-rescue teams who deployed to Turkey just after the quake struck.
Mr. Blinken also seemed to be offering good will another way: by pronouncing his host country’s name in line with its government’s preference. The Turks want to the world to stop using a name that in English is an ungainly, flight-challenged bird, and sometimes an insult.
For more than a year, the government asked that the country be known internationally as “Türkiye,” with three syllables, as it is in Turkish, and it now uses that name at the United Nations. The U.S. State Department officially began using it last month.
In his remarks, Mr. Blinken took care to adopt the new pronunciation.