Erdoğan, Ahmadinejad seek to bridge widening gap over Syria

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad shake hands during a meeting in New York in 2011. (Photo: AA)

October 16, 2012, Tuesday/ 11:59:00

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a surprise meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday as the two neighbors find themselves increasingly at odds over the civil war in Syria.

Prime Minister Erdoğan has said Turkey and Iran have agreed to form a new channel between their foreign ministries to intensify dialogue and cooperation to end the bloodshed in Syria, with Turkey offering Iran to build a trilateral mechanism to grapple with the worsening Syrian crisis.

“We have agreed to bolster communication at the level of the foreign ministries to bridge differences over the unfolding Syrian conflict. The constant deliberation and communication would help to reduce differences,” Erdoğan said in a press conference after returning from Azerbaijan late on Tuesday.

He stressed that Syria was the primary topic during his meeting with Iranian President Ahmadinejad that took place on the sidelines of a summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) in Baku that ended on Tuesday.

He said Turkey had offered Iran to build a trilateral mechanism including key regional actors to adequately handle the Syrian conflict.

“The mechanism could be made up of Turkey, Iran and Egypt or it could include Turkey, Iran and Russia. Furthermore, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia could also form the trilateral mechanism as another scenario,” he said, disclosing the nature of the Turkish offer to Iran on different options of building a new regional body to address the ongoing Syrian conflict.

He pointed out that Saudi Arabia is uneasy with appearing on the same platform as Iran and that it does not want to take part in negotiations with the country. It could, however, take part in a new mechanism with Turkey and Egypt.

Erdoğan said Ahmadinejad had positively reacted to a call by joint UN-Arab League special envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who has sought Iranian help to achieve a cease-fire in Syria during the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Erdoğan signaled that both Turkey and Iran would deliver statements at the same time, calling on both sides in Syria to implement a cease-fire during the holiday. He also said it would be more effective if countries that have influence when it comes to shaping events in Syria, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, also call on the sides to declare a cease-fire.

The meeting comes on the heels of escalating border tensions between Turkey and Syria. Turkey has shelled Syrian targets after a mortar fired from Syria killed five civilians in a border town early this month. In moves that raised fears of a war that could drag in other regional countries and NATO, Turkey also reinforced its military units along the border, sending artillery weapons and deploying more fighter jets to an air base close to the border, and Parliament passed a motion allowing Turkey to send, if need be, Turkish troops into Syria. Necdet Özel, Chief of General Staff, also warned Syria, in a statement on Wednesday that Turkey would retaliate in a more forceful way should shelling by the Syrian side keep landing inside Turkish territory. In addition, Turkey has reinforced its border.

Erdoğan defended Turkey's retaliatory measures in the wake of the attack in the town of Akçakale, and Ahmadinejad concurred. “Turkey is justified in its reaction,” Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying during the meeting by the private Cihan news agency. The Iranian leader also extended condolences for the deaths of the Turkish civilians.

Syria, which said an investigation was under way to track the source of the mortar bomb, has expressed regret for the deaths and extended condolences.

The exchange of fire on the border has raised concerns both in Turkey and elsewhere. The EU ministers gathering for a meeting on Monday and expressed concern over the spillover of the Syrian crisis to Turkey and called on all sides to prevent any escalation of conflict between Damascus and Ankara.

In a bid to allay fears, the United States, which has expressed support for Turkey in its measures against Syria, said on Tuesday that it did not expect the tensions to culminate in a war.

The US ambassador to Turkey, Francis J. Riccardione, said that US did not expect a war between Turkey and Syria and added that US will do its utmost to support Turkey in the Syrian crisis. “We are sharing intelligence with allied countries,” he also said.

On Monday, the EU ministers said: "The European Union remains deeply concerned by the spill-over effects of the Syrian crisis in neighboring countries in terms of security and stability.”

"The EU strongly condemns the shelling by Syrian forces of Turkish territory," they said, adding, “The EU calls on all to prevent escalation.”

Turkey, a strong critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has condemned UN inaction to stop the bloodshed in the civil war-torn country. On Tuesday, Erdoğan reiterated his call for reform in the international system, saying this is necessary to meet “societies' demands for justice.”

Ankara has bitterly criticized the deadlock over Syria in the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have blocked all attempts to harshly condemn the Syrian regime for the bloodshed.

Iran, on the other hand, has been the main regional ally of Assad and the diverging positions have increasingly deepened a rift between the two neighbors whose economic and political ties have flourished over the past decade.

In an attempt to solve the Syrian crisis, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi proposed an initiative to bring together three supporters of the Syrian opposition -- Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- with Iran. Although Turkey, Egypt and Iran attended the first meeting that took place in Cairo in September, Saudi Arabia opted to stay away from the meeting of the four regional powers on the Syrian crisis, adding to a sense that the forum is unlikely to advance the quest for peace

Saudi Arabia attended a preparatory session in Cairo on Sept. 10 of officials from the four states, but Riyadh has missed two ministerial meetings since. It has not announced any reason, but Riyadh and Tehran have long tussled for regional influence.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all demanded that Assad step down, while Iran is his main ally and accuses states -- including Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- of helping the rebels who are fighting to topple him.

One meeting was canceled due to Turkey's absence recently. Morsi has canceled a meeting of four regional powers on the Syria crisis because of the absence of Erdoğan from the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in late September.

During their meeting, Erdoğan and Ahmadinejad exchanged views on the joint UN and Arab League special envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi's talks on the Syrian issue.

Also high on the agenda of the meeting were Iran's nuclear program and the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) -- the Iranian wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been waging a separatist campaign against Turkey for the past three decades.

Iran also agreed that the Turkish Cypriots be given an observer status at ECO, a Turkish demand voiced by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu during a ministerial meeting on Monday.