U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Turkey on January 8th to kick off an urgent Middle East tour focused on preventing a wider regional conflagration from the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. This is Blinken’s fourth visit to the region since hostilities broke out nearly three months ago in October 2023. The war has already killed over 200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, displacing tens of thousands of Gazans.
Blinken will meet with leaders in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE before heading to Israel and the Palestinian Territories later this week. His goal is to shore up a united regional front opposed to the conflict and find ways for key players to help wind it down. But the path forward is fraught with risks, as Blinken himself warned.
“This conflict could easily metastasize,” Blinken told reporters in Istanbul. “It’s vitally important that we are engaged as intensely as we are in trying to deal with and forestall that possibility.”
Escalating Violence Despite International Efforts
Blinken’s trip comes amid reports of continued clashes and civilian casualties in Gaza over the weekend, despite repeated attempts by the U.S. and partners like Egypt and Qatar to broker a durable ceasefire. Hamas and other Gaza militant groups launched dozens of rockets towards Israel on January 7th in retaliation for an Israeli strike that demolished a highrise housing Hamas facilities. Israel said the building also hosted Islamic Jihad militants planning attacks.
At least 12 Palestinians were reportedly killed in Israeli counter-strikes on January 8th. The Palestinian Health Ministry says over 200 Gazans have died since fighting erupted in October 2023, including scores of civilians and children. Hamas rocket fire has killed 13 people in Israel.
Both sides have so far rebuffed international ceasefire appeals. Israel is demanding Gaza militants halt all rocket attacks before agreeing to a truce, while Hamas insists Israel end restrictions on the territory and release Palestinian prisoners.
Blinken Focused on Preventing Regional Spillover
The Biden administration is deeply worried the localized Israel-Hamas war could spill over into the wider region if allowed to fester. U.S. officials point to several dangerous possibilities:
- Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement opening a second front and attacking Israel.
- Iran using Gaza proxies like Islamic Jihad to hit Israel and further set back languishing nuclear talks.
- Instability spreading to U.S.-allied Arab countries like Jordan.
“The human toll already is staggering, but if this metastasizes into something much larger, many more people will die,” a senior State Department official told reporters.
During his trip, Blinken will stress that all countries have an interest in quickly restoring calm and discuss possible reconstruction plans for Gaza’s devastated infrastructure once the fighting stops.
|Turkish President Erdogan
|Saudi Arabia, UAE
|Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed
|Israel, West Bank
|Israeli and Palestinian leaders
Turkey: Testing Complex Ties with Erdogan
Blinken’s first stop was Ankara for talks with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has relations with both Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas, positioning it as a potential mediator.
But ties between Washington and Ankara have frayed badly in recent years over issues like Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles and human rights differences.
During over three hours of discussions, Blinken and Erdogan explored Turkey’s potential role in defusing tensions. But Erdogan also reiterated longstanding Turkish grievances, complaining about U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters that Ankara considers terrorists.
Still, both sides stressed the shared goal of preventing a dangerous expansion of violence. Further indicating Turkey’s pivotal regional role, Blinken travels next to Istanbul for a meeting of his counterparts from Israel and several Arab states.
Oil-Rich Gulf States: Pushing Israel Ties and Palestinian Rights
After Turkey, Blinken heads to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – two influential U.S.-allied Gulf states that only recently normalized relations with Israel.
Blinken will meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh and the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi. The talks aim to shore up their backing for U.S. diplomatic efforts and discuss possible reconstruction assistance for Gaza.
Gulf states have condemned the civilian toll while also calling on world powers to help stop Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. Rights groups have accused the UAE and Saudi Arabia of downplaying Israeli actions in Gaza. But the Biden administration is urging them to use their new ties with Israel to push for deescalation from all sides.
“We have a common stake in preserving the stability of the Middle East. We all want to see this war end,” a senior U.S. official told Al Jazeera.
Israel and West Bank: Addressing Root Causes
The final leg of Blinken’s tour is Israel and the occupied West Bank from January 10-11 for talks Israeli, Palestinian and regional leaders. This will be his toughest challenge.
Blinken plans to address the root causes of Israeli-Palestinian tensions and press for allowing vital humanitarian supplies into Gaza. He will also push Israel to refrain from controversial settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
But Israeli officials insist they will only agree to a ceasefire if it addresses their security concerns. They want Gaza militants to hand over bodies of slain Israeli soldiers and the release of captives held in Gaza.
With both sides dug in and distrust running high, diplomatic efforts have struggled to gain traction so far. Blinken will have his work cut out for him trying to narrow gaps and lay the basis for an eventual return to peace talks.
In short, Blinken has embarked on a marathon mission to mobilize regional countries opposed to further bloodshed and help cobble together a path back from the brink. But US partners have conflicting interests, and the warring parties remain far apart.
Getting Israel and Hamas to lay down arms won’t be easy. Still, a conflagration across the Middle East would be disastrous for global security and the region’s future stability. With so much at stake, the US and allies like Turkey, Gulf states and Egypt have no choice but to keep trying.
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