CHANIA, Greece (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the leaders of Turkey and Greece on Saturday during the opening stops of his latest Mideast diplomatic mission as fears grow that Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza may expand into a broader conflict.
Blinken’s fourth visit in three months comes as developments in Lebanon, northern Israel, the Red Sea and Iraq have put intense strains on what had been a modestly successful U.S. push to prevent a regional conflagration since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, and as international criticism of Israel’s military operation mounts.
Blinken held talks with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and foreign minister, Hakan Fidan, in Istanbul about what Turkey and others can do to exert influence, particularly on Iran and its proxies, to ease tensions, speed humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza and begin planning for reconstruction and governance of postwar Gaza. Much of the territory has been reduced to rubble by Israeli bombardments.
America’s top diplomat later stopped in Chania, a port city on the Mediterranean island of Crete, to see Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, at his residence. “These are difficult and challenging times,” Mitsotakis said.
Hours before Blinken’s meetings, Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia fired dozens of rockets at northern Israel and said the barrage was an initial response to the targeted killing, presumably by Israel, of a top leader from the allied Hamas group in Lebanon’s capital this past week.
Stepped-up attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels have disrupted international trade and led to increased efforts by the U.S. and its allies to patrol the vital commercial waterway and respond to threats. The coalition of countries issued what amounted to a final warning to the Houthis on Wednesday to cease their attacks on vessels or face potential targeted military action. Since Dec. 19, the militants have carried out at least two dozen attacks in response to the Israel-Hamas war.
From the Turkish officials, Blinken sought at least consideration of potential monetary or in-kind contributions to reconstruction efforts in Gaza and participation in security arrangements, according to U.S. officials. Erdogan has been harshly critical of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the prosecution of the war and the impact it has had on Palestinian civilians.
Blinken “emphasized the need to prevent the conflict from spreading … and work toward broader, lasting peace that ensures Israel’s security and advances the establishment of a Palestinian state,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement summarizing Blinken’s meeting with Erdogan.
Blinken also stressed the importance that the U.S. places on Turkey’s ratification of Sweden’s membership in NATO, a long-delayed process that the Turks have said they will complete soon. Sweden’s entry to the alliance is seen as a significant response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A Turkish official said Fidan told Blinken that Israel’s “increasing aggression” in Gaza was a threat to the region and he called for an immediate cease-fire and the delivery of “uninterrupted” humanitarian aid. Fidan said negotiations for a two-state solution should begin “as soon as possible,” according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issues in the private talks.
Fidan also said Turkey was awaiting the outcome of its request to upgrade its fleet of F-16 fighter jets and stressed that the ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership lay in the hands of the Turkish parliament.
Blinken’s day was ending in Jordan, which apart from Israel has been his most frequent stop on his recent Middle East tours.
He plans to be in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on Sunday and Monday. Blinken will visit Israel and the West Bank on Tuesday and Wednesday before wrapping up the trip in Egypt.
Associated Press writer Andrew Wilks in Istanbul contributed to this report.