WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama met Turkey s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday as world leaders scramble to find a way to ease Bashar al-Assad from power and end Syria s bloody civil war.
The talks came a day before another key player in the drama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, was to meet UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and after UN members voted to condemn an “escalation” by Assad s forces.
In a sign of personal respect for Erdogan, and in recognition of Turkey s crucial role, Obama planned to host him at a private dinner after their talks and a joint White House press conference.
Obama has made strenuous efforts to court the Turkish leader, and used his personal connection to end a standoff between Turkey and America s other key regional ally Israel at the end of March.
But, while Obama and Erdogan agree that Assad must be ousted to end the slaughter, their approaches are different and there are signs of frustration in Ankara at Obama s cautious approach towards the Syrian rebels.
Obama has balked at providing arms and ammunition to the guerrillas, fearing they could fall into the hands of extremist elements linked to Al-Qaeda, and is now pinning hopes on a peace conference jointly organized by Russia.
“Everyone in the international community is very much concerned, worried about the radical elements,” a Turkish official said on condition of anonymity.
“We are of course concerned more than anyone else, being a neighbor of Syria — but the way to deal with that problem is not withholding your support. Not doing anything is not a solution.”
Obama has said that Washington has a moral and national security incentive to stop the killing, but has demanded more evidence to stand up reports that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons, crossing a US red line.
Turkey also seems skeptical that the peace conference Washington is planning with Assad s ally Moscow will produce the kind of road map to a political transition — while keeping Syria intact — that Washington wants.
“We have to be … realistic and very careful as to not turn this into an open ended process which would give the opportunity to the regime to gain time and to continue its campaign of violence,” the official said.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, of the German Marshall Fund of the United States office in Turkey, told AFP Erdogan would ask Obama to enforce a “no-fly zone” in Syria and to start directly arming rebel groups.
Obama has resisted both requests before. Enforcing a no-fly zone would require him to deploy US forces into combat in the Middle East once again, after he ran for re-election boasting of having ended the US role in Iraq.
“There is frustration, both among the government but also among the Turkish public. The expectation in Turkey was very high that the United States would intervene militarily somehow,” the Turkish official said.
“The line in Turkey was wait for the (US) elections — once he is re-elected, Obama will move against the Assad regime. It didn t happen.”
Erdogan is now under even more domestic pressure on Syria, following deadly attacks in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli that Ankara has blamed on terrorists with links to the Damascus regime.
“The president and his team are constantly evaluating the options available in terms of assisting the Syrian people and assisting the Syrian opposition,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
“It is our position as of now that our assistance to the Syrian opposition is non-lethal in nature.”
Washington and Moscow have issued a joint call to organize an international peace conference to halt the fighting in Syria, but a vote on Wednesday at the United Nations underscored the bitter divide between them.
Russia is a traditional ally of Syria and voted against a motion before the UN General Assembly to condemn what Arab and Western powers denounced as Assad s “escalation” in attacks on civilians.
The vote passed despite Russian anger but the number of states backing the motion was only 107, down from 133 when a similar vote was held in August, suggesting a weakening of international support for Assad s immediate overthrow
Russia and China are veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council and have stymied Western-led bids to ramp up the pressure on Assad to step down several times during the now three-year-old war.
Now, the diplomatic tempo is increasing, with leader shuttling between capitals to try to revive a plan agreed in Geneva last year for a ceasefire followed by the formation of a transitional Syrian government.
Putin is likely to press this point in his talks with Ban on Friday at his Black Sea residence in Sochi, southern Russia, and Moscow bitterly opposed Wednesday s General assembly vote.
Russia s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin wrote to all 193 UN members ahead of the vote saying that supporting the resolution would “be a serious blow to all attempts to bring the Syrian sides to the negotiating table.”
Both Russia and Syria s main regional ally Iran said the vote would embolden the rebel forces fighting Assad s regime and lead to greater violence, although reports from the battlefield were of loyalist forces advancing.
According to rights activists, more than 94,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which erupted in M