HATAY PROVINCE, Turkey — Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in earthquake-ravaged Turkey on Sunday, announcing $100 million in disaster assistance and offering unreserved solidarity to a NATO ally with an often-strained relationship with Washington.
The top U.S. diplomat took a helicopter tour over parts of devastated southeastern Turkey with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and thanked U.S. Agency for International Development workers, including search-and-rescue specialists, paramedics, construction riggers and emergency managers who have been helping pull people out of collapsed buildings in the aftermath of the 7.8- and 7.5-magnitude earthquakes on Feb. 6.
“It’s really hard to put into words,” Blinken said after touring a badly damaged area outside of Antakya. “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’s going to take a massive effort to rebuild but we’re committed to supporting Turkey in that effort.”
The earthquakes are known to have killed more than 46,000 people and left more than a million homeless in Turkey and Syria. Blinken’s announcement of an additional $100 million in assistance brings the total amount of U.S. humanitarian aid to $185 million in disaster response.
On Saturday, Turkish authorities said search-and-rescue operations have ended in most areas and will be finished Sunday, a grim reality Blinken noted during his visit.
“Search and rescue, unfortunately, is coming to an end,” he said. “The recovery operation is on and then there’ll be a massive rebuilding effort.”
On his helicopter tour, Blinken saw the quake’s chaotic and uneven toll up close. He flew over rows of seemingly intact high-rise buildings beside others that were reduced to rubble.
“You see … buildings collapsed, roofs destroyed and right next it, something that’s still standing,” said Blinken.
Some of that unevenness has been linked to shoddy and illegal construction methods that have fueled anger toward Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, already under fire for the country’s economic downturn and facing parliamentary and presidential elections in May.
Turkish officials have tried to demonstrate action on the problem, detaining or putting out arrest warrants for roughly 130 people accused of negligent construction practices in recent days.
Blinken’s first visit to Turkey, coming more than two years after President Biden was sworn into office, demonstrates the troubled nature of the relationship between Washington and Ankara.
U.S. officials have criticized Erdogan’s authoritarian actions and have been frustrated by his latest decision to hold up Sweden’s and Finland’s applications to join NATO over their alleged support for Kurdish groups Turkey considers terrorists.
The visit was scheduled before Turkey’s massive earthquake. Western officials hoped the trip might help advance the Nordic countries’ applications, potentially greased by a deal to allow Turkey to purchase U.S. F-16 fighter jets. But while U.S. support for Turkey’s recovery may generate goodwill in the relationship, expectations are low that the trip will result in any significant breakthroughs.
“Nobody’s expecting Turkey to ratify membership for Finland or Sweden at this stage because the government’s bandwidth for foreign policy has shrunk significantly,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But the emergency assistance from U.S. and European allies have improved those countries’ standing in Turkey, Cagaptay said. “Turkish citizens have realized from the outpouring of support that Turkey’s closest friends are still in the West.”
During his helicopter ride, the damage Blinken surveyed was extensive. The quake collapsed entire neighborhoods, with roofs, shattered windows and demolished walls creating heaps of wreckage that fill the streets and walkways. The roads that have been cleared are mostly used by large trucks to ferry debris. Blinken flew over rows of tent camps housing people who had lost their homes.
Blinken also spent time at the Incirlik Air Base, thanking U.S. aid workers for their efforts.
In recent days, U.S. military helicopters have conducted airlift operations from the base, transporting rescue personnel to quake sites. The U.S. Navy has also repositioned naval vessels to the eastern Mediterranean Sea to provide logistics, medical and rotary air lift support to Turkey’s rescue efforts. U.S. military aircraft have airlifted about 18 metric tons of relief supplies for earthquake victims.
“Our colleagues have flown something like 150 sorties,” Blinken said as military personnel stacked boxes of supplies that will be shipped to damage sites. “They’ve gotten helicopters out over hard-to-reach areas — 24 million pounds of assistance is coming through this place, and as you can see, it’s moving right on to the trucks behind me and it will move in to people who need it.”