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Syria Dominates Talks During Kerry's Turkey Visit

  • Dorian Jones

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, enters a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Turkey, on March 1, 2013.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, enters a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Turkey, on March 1, 2013.

The new U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry held talks with his Turkish counterpart Friday during a two-day visit to Turkey. The talks were dominated by the conflict in Syria.

With Turkey sharing a 900-kilometer border with Syria and sheltering nearly 200,000 refugees from Syria, Kerry's trip underlines the importance of the NATO ally to Washington.


Secretary Kerry, speaking at a press conference with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, praised the Turkish government's humanitarian effort and re-iterated his condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.


"Minister Davutoglu and I and our international allies agree there is no legitimacy with a regime that commits atrocities against its own people," Kerry said.


Turkey, once a close ally of Syria, has joined the U.S. in supporting the oppostion to Assad, and has given shelter to Syrian rebels and to nearly 200,000 refugees along its volatile border.


But Turkey and the US differ on how to support Syria's opposition.


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for a more robust stance by the international community over Syria, including the creation of safe havens and arming the opposition forces. The U.S. and other Western nations have mostly focused on humanitarian aid.


Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based research institute Edam, says the offer this week by Washington of non-lethal aid to Syria does not go far enough.


"It will certainly be perceived as a step in the right direction, but ultimately not fulfilling Ankara's aim of convincing the U.S. to provide stronger military aid including lethal weapons. But at least it is a step in the right direction. Ankara will continue to nurture hopes that it will eventually shift its stance on aid of lethal weapons as well," Ulgen said.


During the Ankara press conference, Kerry raised concern over arming rebels, arguing it is difficult to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of militants who could use them on Western targets.


Political columnist Kadri Gursel of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet says Ankara believes the concerns are exaggerated and that groups such as Al Nusra Front, which was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, are playing a positive role in fighting the regime.


"I think the Al Nusra front will never be labeled as terrorists by Turkey. In the Syrian context, the Al Nusra Front -- if not publicly stated -- is not an illegitimate partner, because they are struggling against an illegitimate dictatorship and foreign fighters are welcomed in this struggle against the Syrian regime," Gursel said.


The visit was somewhat overshadowed by the Turkish prime minister's remarks about Zionism. Erdogan earlier this week called Zionism a "crime against humanity" - remarks that have been widely condemned both internationally and by Secretary Kerry:


"We found it objectionable. But that said, Turkey and Israel are both vital allies of the United States and we want see them work together in order to go beyond the rhetoric and change this relationship," Kerry said.


Ties between Israel and mostly Muslim Turkey have been frosty since 2010, when Israeli marines killed nine Turks in fighting aboard a Palestinian aid ship that tried to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Secretary Kerry is pressing for a rapprochement. But for now, observers warn there appears to be little chance of an improvement in relations.

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