© 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
By Humeyra Pamuk
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday announced further aid to Turkey and said Washington would provide longer term help to Ankara as it seeks to rebuild following this month’s earthquake.
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey’s southeast and neighbouring Syria on Feb. 6, killing more than 45,000 people and leaving a million-plus homeless, with the economic cost of the disaster expected to run into billions of dollars.
Blinken arrived at Incirlik Air Force Base on Sunday for an official visit and discussions on how Washington can further assist.
From Incirlik, he took a helicopter ride with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to observe from above the devastation caused by the earthquake in the southern Hatay province, one of the hardest hit.
Reporters on the tour saw the uneven toll from the massive quake, with some buildings standing but with collapsed roofs and shattered windows. Other residential buildings leaned heavily to one side after lower levels had collapsed, and blue and white tents housing survivors were set up among the rubble.
“It’s really hard to put into words. You see buildings still standing and then buildings collapsed, roofs destroyed and right next to it, something that’s still standing,” Blinken told reporters at the base, which Washington has used as a de facto headquarters to conduct its relief effort.
Almost two weeks after the earthquake, search and rescue operations are coming to an end, but Blinken said the United States would continue to help what he said would be “a long-term effort.”
“When you see the extent of the damage, the number of buildings, the number of apartments, the number of homes that have been destroyed, it is going to take a massive effort to rebuild but we are committed to supporting Turkey in that effort,” he said.
“The most important thing right now is getting assistance to people … Simply put, the United States is here.”
Since the earthquake, the United States has sent a search and rescue team to Turkey, along with medical supplies, concrete-breaking machinery and additional funding of $85 million in humanitarian aid that also covers Syria.
Blinken also said that President Joe Biden intends to authorise $50 million in Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Funds (ERMA) in response to earthquake in Turkey and Syria.
With the additional $50 million delivered through the State Department and USAID, total U.S. humanitarian assistance to support the earthquake response in Turkey and Syria reached $185 million, the U.S. State Department said.
Blinken will hold further bilateral talks in Ankara on Monday with Cavusoglu and he is also expected to meet Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, sources familiar with the planning said.
Blinken’s first visit to Turkey as secretary of state had been planned for some time, but is only taking place two years after he took office.
That is in stark contrast with some of his predecessors, including Hillary Clinton and Rex Tillerson, who visited within the first three months of their terms.
The delay, analysts say, shows the strained nature of the relationship, which has soured 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 concerned about its close relationship with Moscow, experts say.
Talks between Washington and Ankara are also expected to address the stalled NATO applications of Sweden and Finland, which Turkey has so far refused to ratify, saying Stockholm in particular has harboured what it calls members of terrorist groups.
Erdogan last month said he was open to ratifying only Helsinki’s application.
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 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.