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US ambassador says rift on Gaza does not change Turkey’s commitment to the West: report

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US Ambassador to Ankara Jeff Flake has said Turkey remains firmly anchored in the West and that its partnership with the United States has never been stronger, even as the sides remain split on Israel’s war in Gaza, Reuters reported.

Flake, set to leave his post this autumn, said Turkey’s endorsement of NATO enlargement and a deal to purchase F-16 fighter jets from the US signaled Ankara’s tilt to the West this year and set the stage for lasting momentum in trade and investment.

“The strategic partnership has never been stronger, and we’re in a good place,” Flake, 61, said in the interview with Reuters at his residence in Ankara.

A former Republican senator nominated by Democratic President Joe Biden, Flake’s posting began in early 2022 and has been dominated by fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which happened six weeks after he arrived in Turkey.

Washington has pressed Ankara to clamp down on any evasions of its sanctions on Moscow, and also to endorse NATO enlargement, which was resolved in January with Turkey’s blessing of Sweden’s membership after a 20-month delay.

Flake said that despite Turkey’s strong economic, commercial and energy ties with Russia, the war in Ukraine highlighted its commitment to NATO and the West.

Turkey “has been pitch perfect in its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” Flake said, citing its halting Russian warships transiting to the Black Sea and its supplying drones to Kyiv.

He added that bipartisan sentiment toward Turkey in the US Congress had turned positive this year, and that that would continue irrespective of the outcome of the US general election in November.

“They’re firmly anchored in the West,” he said.

Israel-Gaza split

The main strains on US-Turkey ties in recent years are the US alliance with Syrian Kurds whom Turkey deems terrorists and over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defenses that prompted US sanctions and removal from a F-35 jet program.

The latest divergence is over the Gaza war, for which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sharply criticized what he calls Israeli war crimes and US support for the operation against Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Flake said that while Erdoğan’s planned visit with Biden at the White House last month was cancelled due to scheduling problems, it also happened at a time that the situation in Gaza cast a “tough political backdrop.”

“Obviously there’s going to be differences with the Gaza situation, that’s a tough one,” he said.

But Flake added that Ankara’s close ties with Hamas political leaders provided a valuable conduit during the conflict and in ceasefire talks and that Washington sometimes asks it to deliver messages to them.

A NATO leader meeting in Washington next month presents an opportunity for a Biden-Erdoğan meeting given “there’s some desire on both sides,” he said.

Russian-Turkish ties

In his two-and-a-half years in Turkey, Flake sought to use his ties to the US Congress to overcome some members’ concerns over Turkey’s commitment to the West and over Erdoğan’s record on human rights.

The sale of F-16 jets and modernization kits to Turkey – just after the endorsement of Sweden’s NATO bid – shows growing trust between the sides, Flake said, and helped “unlock” cooperation in manufacturing and other direct investments.

Flake’s comments come after Ankara said last week it could consider joining the BRICS group of nations – comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and others.

Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan met President Vladimir Putin in Russia this week and attended a BRICS meeting. Fidan was later cited by state media as saying that Turkish-Russian ties “are truly going fantastically well.”

Putin said on Tuesday Erdoğan would attend a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in July and he hoped to meet with him there.

Flake said that while he hoped Turkey would not join BRICS, such a move would not change its alignment with the West.

“I think that they realize that Russia’s economy is turning to a wartime economy. There’s not much future there, particularly with the sanctions that have been imposed by the West,” he said, adding that Washington was working with Ankara to ease its energy reliance on Russia.

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