NATO allies US, Turkey try to mend fences but rifts persist

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States and Turkey on Wednesday looked to put aside years of rifts that have marred relations, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and reports of no progress in resolving differences over NATO expansion that have strained ties between the allies.

At a meeting in Washington, Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken and visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tried to bridge those gaps, but while both praised the partnership between their countries, there were no immediate signs that they had.

They offered cooperation on Ukraine, with Blinken particularly praising Turkey’s leadership in reaching an agreement with Russia for Ukrainian grain shipments. But in brief remarks before their meeting, Finland and Sweden did not specifically address their differences over joining NATO, which the Turks have so far blocked despite strong support from the US and other allies.

Turkey is demanding that the Swedes do more to rein in Kurdish groups that Ankara sees as a threat to its security before endorsing the bloc’s expansion.

“We are close friends and partners,” Blinken said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have differences, but when we do have differences, certainly because we are allies and partners, we work through them in that spirit.”

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Cavusoglu did not mention Finland and Sweden in his remarks, but emphasized the importance Turkey places on securing US approval to buy advanced F-16 fighter jets, which the Biden administration supports but faces significant congressional opposition.

Cavusoglu called the F-16 deal an “important element” in US-Turkey defense cooperation. “As we said before, this is not only about Turkey but also about NATO and the United States. So we expect approval in line with our common strategic interests.

In a joint statement released after the meeting, they “discussed strengthening the US-Turkey defense partnership, including the modernization of Turkey’s F-16 fleet”, as well as emphasizing their mutual commitment to NATO’s expansion to qualified applicants.

While the statement said both sides were keen to “enhance NATO coordination and solidarity in the face of current threats and challenges”, it gave no indication that any of those issues had been resolved.

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Cavusoglu’s visit to Washington by a top Turkish official is rare as President Joe Biden’s administration keeps its distance from Turkey due to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian direction and policies that curtail rights and freedoms.

At the crossroads between East and West, Turkey is strategically important to Washington. And, as Blinken points out, Turkey was key to an agreement between Russia and Ukraine that allowed millions of tons of Ukrainian grain to be shipped to world markets, averting a wartime food crisis.

However, the NATO allies often find themselves at odds over a number of issues, with the biggest disputes centering on Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made missiles and support for Kurdish militants in Syria.

Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia in 2017 led to sanctions and Turkey’s removal from the next-generation F-35 fighter jet development program. After losing the F-35, Ankara is trying to renew its F-16 fleet.

US concern over Ankara’s cozy relationship with the Kremlin has been renewed by the war in Ukraine. While Turkey’s relations with Moscow have produced breakthroughs such as a grain deal and prisoner swaps, Washington is concerned about sanctions-busting as levels of Turkish-Russian trade have risen over the past year.

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And Ankara’s dragging its feet on accepting bids by Sweden and Finland to join NATO has fueled friction between the allies.

After a meeting of Syrian and Turkish defense ministers in Moscow last month, Turkey’s recent efforts with Syria after a decade of bitter hostility caused another break with the US, with the US State Department reiterating its opposition to countries normalizing ties with Damascus.

The US military has warned that a threatened Turkish operation against the Kurdish YPG in northern Syria could destabilize the region and revive the Islamic State group.

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