Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi arrived in Ankara on Tuesday for a previously unannounced visit as tensions escalate between Ankara and Tehran over the Syrian crisis, which took a new turn when Syrian opposition forces abducted 48 Iranians in Damascus.
Underlining the simmering tensions, Salehi's visit comes in the wake of a statement by the top commander of the Iranian army that Turkey, along with other supporters of the Syrian opposition, has Syrians' blood on their hand.
“Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are responsible for the blood that is being shed in Syria,” Hassan Firouzabadi, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of Iran's Armed Forces, said in Tehran on Monday, warning that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar may become “the victims of promoting al-Qaeda terrorism.”
“It is not a proper norm for Syria's neighboring states to facilitate America's warmongering objectives,” he was quoted as saying by the Press TV. “If, they accept such a norm, they must then realize that after Syria, Turkey and other [such] states will be next in line. We warn our friends about this trend.”
Salehi told reporters in Ankara upon his arrival that he was "not here to discuss the statements of officials" and declined to comment on the Iranian general's statement on Turkey. He said many statements are made against Iran everywhere, including in Turkey.
Turkey and Iran have improved their ties after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AK Party) first came to power in 2002 but conflicting policies regarding Syria have strained Turkish-Iranian relations over the past several months. Turkey, along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is one of the staunchest supporter of the opposition forces that are trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Tehran and a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Salehi has earlier called for help from Turkey and Qatar for immediate release of the hostages. Iran says they were pilgrims returning from a visit to a Shiite shrine in Damascus, while the Free Syrian Army rebels that captured the Iranians claim they were members of the Iranian military on a reconnaissance mission in the Syrian capital.
A Foreign Ministry statement earlier on Tuesday said Turkey views the kidnapping of Iranian citizens in Damascus as a humanitarian issue and that Turkey will do all it can to help secure the release of the abducted Iranians after Salehi called Davutoğlu and sought assistance in this regard.
Salehi told reporters in Ankara that Turkey has contact with Syrian opposition fighters and that Tehran will seek Ankara's help in the release of the pilgrims. He said he would discuss with Davutoğlu the situation of 48 Iranians seized by opposition fighters in Syria.
"Only Turkey and Iran working together can resolve their region's conflicts, particularly the fighting in Syria," Salehi added. "Without anyone of these major players I think the realization or materialization of peace and stability in the region, especially in countries like Syria, will be very difficult," Salehi told reporters at the airport.
Sources said Salehi reiterated Iran’s request to Turkey to help the release of the 48 Iranian pilgrims kidnapped in Syria during the talks with Davutoğlu following the fast-breaking dinner. Davutoğlu, according to the sources, said Turkey will do its best in this end on humanitarian grounds.
On Monday, a top Iranian official declared that it holds the US, Qatar, and Turkey, which are supporting the opposition groups in Syria, accountable for the lives of the Iranian nationals.
“We hold the Turkish government responsible for giving shelter to these armed groups and for criminal acts carried out by these groups, such as kidnapping Iranian citizens,” Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian said. “We also hold the Qatari government accountable. It is worth mentioning that the US is openly supporting the armed groups with ammunition,” he added.
He made the comments after media reports said that three of the abducted 48 Iranians have been “murdered,” according to the Press TV. Syrian rebels, on the other hand, said on Monday that three of the Iranians had been killed in a government air strike in Damascus and warned the rest of them would be executed if the attacks did not stop. There has been no word of their fate since then.
On Tuesday, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani blamed the United States and countries in the region, an indirect reference to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for the killing of the Iranians.
"In the name of Islam, some of these governments have launched killings and even treat Iranian pilgrims in Syria with violence. These crimes are not something the Iranian nation will disregard," Larijani said in a speech in parliament aired on Iranian television. "The American regime and some countries in the region are responsible for these crimes. And they will receive their response in turn."
Sources noted that Davutoğlu told Salehi that no one can describe Turkey as a state who is responsible in the Syria violence and that these kind of statements are "unacceptable."
The talks largely focused on the developments in Syria and both sides agreed that the situation in Syria is grave and that the bloodshed must stop.
Davutoğlu and Salehi also exchanged views on regional issues such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Somali and Myanmar, as well as discussed the agenda items for the approaching meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Both officials discussed the latest developments in the nuclear standoff between the West and Tehran.
Report: Syrian Kurds arrest 12 Turkish commanders in Hassakeh
Meanwhile, the Iranian media also reported on Tuesday that Syrian Kurds in Hassakeh province have arrested 12 Turkish commanders in Amouda city while they were trying to reach Aleppo to help anti-Assad forces.
Turkey denied on Monday another report in the Iranian media that Syrian forces arrested a Turkish general in Aleppo.