Anthony Blinken meets with Turkish president on latest trip to Middle East as escalation fears grow

Anthony Blinken’s fourth visit in three months comes amid worrying developments outside of Gaza, including in Lebanon, northern Israel, the Red Sea and Iraq

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken kicked off his latest urgent Middle East diplomatic mission in Turkey on Saturday, as fears mount that the fighting in Gaza may explode into a broader conflict in the region.

Mr Blinken’s fourth visit in three months comes amid worrying developments outside of Gaza, including in Lebanon, northern Israel, the Red Sea and Iraq.

There has been intense strain on what had been a modestly successful US push to prevent a regional conflagration in the weeks after the October 7 attack by Hamas in Israel, with growing international criticism of Israel’s military operation in Gaza.

Mr Blinken met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan to discuss what Turkey and others can do to exert influence - particularly on Iran and its proxies.

The discussions included how to help ease soaring tensions, speed up humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza, and begin to plan for reconstruction and governance of the territory postwar.

Much of Gaza has been reduced to rubble by the conflict, which marks three months on Sunday.

The immediate difficulty of Mr Blinken’s task was underscored just hours before his talks with President Erdogan as Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia fired dozens of rockets at northern Israel, warning that the barrage was just an initial response to suspected Israeli killing of a top leader from the allied Hamas group in Beirut earlier this week.

The top Hamas official Saleh Arouri was killed in a blast in Beirut, Hamas and Hezbollah officials have said. Credit: AP

The rocket attack came a day after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said that his group must retaliate for the killing of Saleh Arouri, the deputy political leader of Hamas, in a Hezbollah stronghold south of Beirut.

Nasrallah said that if Hezbollah did not strike back, all of Lebanon would be vulnerable to Israeli attack.

Meanwhile, 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 on the part of the US and its allies to patrol the area and respond to threats, including possibly taking direct action against the group at its bases in Yemen.

The Houthis have carried out at least two dozen attacks in response to the Israeli bombardment in Gaza since December, which have further heightened tensions and raised risks for the global economy.

Armed Houthi fighters pictured in 2021. Credit: AP

From the Turkish officials, Mr Blinken sought at least consideration of potential monetary or in-kind contributions to reconstruction efforts in Gaza and participation in security arrangements, according to US officials.

President 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.

Mr 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 US State Department said in a statement summarising his meeting with Erdogan.

Mr Blinken also stressed the importance that the US 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.

Greek Foreign Minister George Gerapetritis (left) greets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Credit: AP

Later on Saturday, Mr Blinken arrived in Chania, a port city on the Mediterranean island of Crete, to meet with Greece's prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at his residence.

Mitsotakis and his government have been supportive of US efforts to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from spreading.

Greece has also shown patience in waiting for the delivery of advanced US fighter jets as the issue of Sweden’s accession to NATO is worked out with Turkey, its rival. Mr Blinken's day ended 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, and will visit Israel and the West Bank on Tuesday and Wednesday, before wrapping up the trip in Egypt.

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